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A clampdown on social media messages for help is the worst way to deal with the national health emergency, the Supreme Court said on Friday, warning state governments against taking action against those using online forums to seek help in arranging for oxygen and medicines.

“It is a matter of grave concern to us. If citizens communicate their grievances either on the Internet or on social media, there cannot be a clampdown. We don’t want a clampdown of information. That’s the worst way of dealing with a crisis," observed a bench headed by justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud.

The bench, which included justices L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat, gave examples of various social media posts asking for help when somebody needed an oxygen cylinder or a bed in a hospital or drugs such as remdesivir.

“To act against someone who is seeking help for oxygen or a medicine is against the basic precepts," the bench said, cautioning state governments and their directors general of police (DGPs) against taking any action against those seeking help.

“Let this message go very clearly to all states and their DGPs; we will treat this as a contempt of this court if they want a clampdown on communication. Let everyone understand that we are not projecting anyone in a bad light but looking out for help," remarked the court.

The bench concluded its discussion on the issue by making it unequivocal: “Let information flow freely. Let us hear the voices of our citizens and not a clampdown on them."

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Central government in the matter, agreed with the court, saying there could not be any action on people who were already in distress. The court’s observations assume significance in the wake of a recent case lodged in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi against a 26-year-old man for allegedly spreading “false information" on social media over the supply of oxygen. Shashank Yadav made an appeal on Twitter for an oxygen cylinder for his critically ill grandfather, which the police claimed was false. Earlier this week, Yadav was booked under the charges of the Epidemic Act and the Indian Penal Code for spreading false information with an intent to create panic in society. Yadav was taken to a police station for questioning but was later let off.

Activist Saket Gokhale has moved the Allahabad high court seeking to restrain the UP government from taking coercive action against such persons who appealed for oxygen supply and other medical assistance on social media.

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