Covid-19: Health Workers in J&K Can Land in Jail for Reporting to Media

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Health workers on standby at the COVID-19 designated SKIMS Hospital, Bemina. KO Photo: Abid Bhat

Rayan Naqash

Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir government on Wednesday issued a veiled threat to health workers in its service with punishment under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, allowing for imprisonment upto six months, for publicly criticising the administration’s efforts in containing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

A circular issued by the Directorate of Health Services Kashmir has noted that “some” government employees have been vocal in their criticism of the government’s efforts “which is against the service rules”.

The circular signed by Director Health Services states that “there can be difference of opinion or some minor issues, which the government employees can bring into the notice of concerned authorities” instead of putting it out on social media or the press.

Without specifying the details of the offending comments or how it is hampering the government’s efforts, the circular states that public criticism of the government “is causing more harm than good to the public & administration in combating the Pandemic of COVID-19”.

The circular comes in the wake of criticism over what health experts call a bureaucratic approach to a public health emergency.

While the Jammu and Kashmir administration has officially designated 17 bureaucrats for the mitigation efforts, not a single health expert figures on the list.

“Hence forth strict action will be initiated against such elements who resort to such uncalled for reporting to media,” the circular warned medical staff.

“Any person disobeying any regulation or order made under Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987 shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860.”

The offence, however, is bailable if the law is followed.

The Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu promulgated the Epidemic Diseases (Covid-19) Regulations Act on March 17 declaring the novel coronavirus an epidemic and besides assigning additional powers to government officials, including medical staff, has made any violation of the Act a punishable criminal offence.

The circular comes on the same day anti-accountability steps were taken by the Modi government in New Delhi.

The central government has barred most journalists from press briefing, allowing only wire agencies “to ensure proper information dissemination”.

On March 31, the Modi government urged the Supreme Court to issue directions to the press to not publish or broadcast reportage on Covid-19, as the disease caused by the novel coronavirus is called, “the largest interest of justice”.

Alternatively, the government sought directions to the press to avoid reportage without first ascertaining the true factual position from the separate mechanism provided by the Centre.

Even though the administration and the Srinagar Municipal Corporation have been regularly posting updates on social media platforms, they have refused to respond to the press unless when it comes to unidirectional communication and has as such left many questions pertaining to the handling situation unanswered.

Doctors in Kashmir have been critical of the government’s response flouting advisories of central health ministry by making quarantine mandatory for all international travellers and designating hospitals as quarantine centres thereby increasing the risks of transmission.

So far two individuals have died to the disease and 62 others, including 12 from Jammu division, have tested positive for the disease.

As of now more than five hundred suspected cases have been kept in hospital quarantine and 52 others in isolation.

“The response is led by bureaucrats who instead of letting doctors take the lead are advising them and also refusing to heed to advisories by experts,” said a senior doctor.

“The problem is that they do not review their decisions and are draining resources owing to misplaced priorities.”

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