The Karnataka High Court has directed the Central and State Governments to consider and decide within two months a representation seeking directions to the government and private media houses to provide Rs 50 lakh compensation each to families of media persons, newspaper delivery boys, in case they die due to coronavirus infection.
Disposing of a petition filed by one Jacob George, a division bench of Justice B V Nagarathna and Justice Suraj Govindaraj said
"The role of journalists and media personnel cannot be underestimated nor undermined during this pandemic and just like police, doctors, nurses, Government personnel and others who are carrying out essential duties, in the same way, the journalists and other media personnel are on the field so as to disseminate and convey correct information to the citizens of the Country about the impact of the pandemic and also other information from the world over."
It added :
"The importance of the media in our democracy cannot be underestimated. Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution speaks about the freedom of speech and expression which includes the right to information and conversely, right to freedom of press and electronic media to communicate. The right to information is the right to know, which is an important aspect of the right of freedom of speech and expression."
The Court said that journalists exposed themselves to the risk of COVID infection while performing their duties during the pandemic.
"Media is a channel through which governmental policies are disseminated to the people of the country so that there could be enough debate on the pros and cons of such policies of the Government. Hence, the need for responsible reporting by the media, which has to portray a correct and accurate picture of the health crisis particularly during times such as the present. For that, the media personnel would have to risk their health and life to be on ground zero, at hot-spots and in containment zones so as to collect information and convey the same to the public at large, either through the press or electronic media. Hence, journalists, whether working for the press or electronic media, either on the field or in studios/offices play a significant and important role. While discharging their duties, they face immense challenges in times such as the current pandemic as they expose themselves to the risk of being infected by the virus even as they perform their duties on the frontiers."
The Court disposed of the plea by ordering :
"...having regard to the role of the Fourth Estate which is one of the pillars of democracy, we think that without making any observations on the merit or otherwise or of the representations made by the petitioner and bearing in mind the fact the petitioner has reached this Court without giving any time to first and second respondents to even take note of the representations made by him, we think it appropriate to direct the first and second respondents to consider the representations made by the petitioner within a period of two months from the date of receipt of a copy of this order"
Submissions of petitioner
Advocate Sunil Kumar H appearing for the petitioner had argued that during the pandemic, doctors, nurses, health care personnel, ASHA workers, Police and paramilitary personnel are functioning as essential services for the prevention of spread and control of the pandemic. Their services are considered to be essential and they are called "Corona Warriors".
Further, media personnel and journalists, both print and electronic media, are working day and night so as to create awareness amongst the general public about the harmful effects of the Corona Virus and also for prevention of its spread and disseminating news, views as well as information in that regard. The role of media, both print and electronic, in this regard is important and vital and it should also be considered as an essential service. The personnel working in the media are the primary source of information to the people and they depend upon the print media, television, news channels and radio for getting information about the Covid-19 virus pandemic.
Moreover, various news reporters are interviewing doctors, government officials, patients who have recovered from the disease and family members of the patients infected by Covid-19 virus on a day-to-day basis at great risk of their health and the health of their families. The media personnel have no social security benefit in the event of an unfortunate death while in the line of duty as their families are not paid any compensation, either from the managements under whom they work or from the State or Central Governments.4
Submissions of Centre
Additional Solicitor General appearing for the Union government opposed the plea saying
"It is for the Union and State Governments to decide for whom a scheme of compensation must be extended during the current pandemic, if any person is adversely affected by the Covid-19 disease or succumbs to the same. That the Union Government and some of the State Governments have extended a scheme of payment of compensation to police and medical personnel as they constitute essential services. That the same is purely a matter of policy and Article 14 of the Constitution does not apply in the instant case. That the media personnel cannot be equated with Police or medical personnel."
On the aspect of maintainability of the petition it was argued that "Journalists do not perform any public duty nor a State function. They are discharging their duties as per the directions of entities who are private media houses. That if any journalist working under them is infected by the virus and succumbs to it, his/her family could seek relief from the employer of the deceased and not from the State or the Union Government when no scheme in respect of the media personnel has been announced." Moreover, the petitioner had approached the court without giving proper time for the government to decide on his representation.
He also relied on the revised guidelines issued on March 5, 2019 for Journalist by the Central Government which is in the form of Welfare scheme. These are applicable to all journalist and they may seek relief under the same.
In response, the bench said that in the present times media was also important for the government because "An independent and balanced press and media is not only a hallmark of a democracy but it is also vital for the Government to convey to the people its policies and programmes so that there could be a debate in public on pros and cons of such policies and programmes as a result of which, Governments could, on receipt of useful and suitable suggestions from the public, alter their policies so that they have utmost efficacy and in the execution of which would ultimately benefit the citizenry of the country."
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