On January 12, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued a circular to the chiefs of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), medical college hospitals and specialised hospitals regarding the management of visitors in public hospitals. The circular states that unregulated access of visitors puts patients at risk of contamination, makes it difficult for doctors to carry out their duties, and hampers patient confidentiality. We do agree that contamination and overcrowding of public facilities is a concern and would help implement the related directives of the ministry by raising public awareness on the issue. However, the circular also does something else. It essentially prohibits journalists from taking photographs or videos of the status of public hospitals without prior permission. In fact, it also says that journalists cannot publish any information without seeking permission from relevant authorities.
We are at a loss to understand if, and how, such a provision is constitutional or serves public interest. The preamble of The Right to Information Act 2009 states, in no uncertain terms, that “the freedom of thought, conscience and speech is recognised in the Constitution as a fundamental right and the right to information is an alienable part of it.” By requiring prior permission, the ministry is essentially curtailing the right of the press to report on irregularities, inefficiencies and indiscretions of public institutions. Are we to believe that the authorities concerned would have granted us permission to investigate—as we did earlier this month—that eight high-end ventilators for the Intensive Care Unit, bought 12 years ago, were never installed and how their motherboards were stolen at the National Institute of Cancer Research and Hospital? Would we be allowed to take photos and videos of the dilapidated condition of public facilities, such as hospital beds infested with bed bugs, cockroaches and soiled bedsheets? Could we report on the authorities’ complicity in corruption and mismanagement if we had to take their permission to print the stories? Yet, does the public not have the right to know how public institutions, funded by the taxpayers’ money, are functioning (or, for that matter, not functioning)?
We need not remind the ministry that in a democracy, it is the public to whom public institutions are accountable. The press plays a crucial role in ensuring accountability and transparency in this regard by equipping the public with information which they would otherwise not have access to. By putting conditions on people’s right to know, the ministry is no doubt setting a dangerous precedent.
We fail to see any justification for the ministry’s ban on publication of information on public hospitals, unless it is to hide corruption and mismanagement of public hospitals. We strongly urge the ministry to withdraw this ban, and ensure free flow of information and people’s right to know.