The Indian government’s petition to the Supreme Court to issue a blanket directive to news organisations to pre censor COVID-19 news have come as worrying signs for the Indian media even as it grapples with covering a pandemic that poses a huge challenge for its 1.3 billion people.
The Supreme Court declined, thankfully, to the government’s plea to set up a separate mechanism through which clearance of all coverage on the pandemic could be done. The apex court ruled that it would not interfere with the “free discussion” about COVID -19. However, it had a rider – it urged the media to ensure that the official government version was also carried in the reportage. The government had sought a blanket order ostensibly to stall “fake and inaccurate” reporting which could cause “panic in the country”. Such a blanket censor was unacceptable to the Supreme Court.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was quick to react – “The Indian government should stop trying to censor news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journalists are providing an essential service by informing the public during this national emergency and should be allowed to do their work unimpeded,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, in New York. “The Indian government should focus its efforts on containing the virus, not on containing vital news reporting.”
Since the announcement of the national lockdown in India, CPJ pointed out that it had documented at least three cases where journalists’ movements were restricted and they were physically assaulted.
India had ordered a nationwide lockdown from March 25 to control the spread of the pandemic. Prior to that the government had already begun to arm itself with legislation like the Disaster Management Act and the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act under which the punishment for spreading misleading information could result in jail terms and cash fines.
Ever since the pandemic started the media has been relentlessly asking the authorities about why India is not following WHO directives and testing more widely in the population. It has also been highlighting the inadequacy of Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs) for doctors and paramedics in Indian hospitals to ensure the frontline workers are protected. Indian journalists were asking the questions that needed to asked of their country’s authorities just as other media are asking of their governments in the US, UK and Europe.
But it was the unplugged coverage of the heartrending scenes of lakhs of migrant workers trekking 200 to 500 kilometers up and down the country – from the metros where they worked on daily wages to the villages they came from – immediately after the lockdown that must have triggered the panic button in the government. The eviction notices served on them by their landlords, the lack of wages and food and shelter had made them decide to undertake this long march carrying their meagre belongings on their backs.
With buses and trains off the road covering the long distance to their villages on foot was their only option rather than face starvation in the cities. Then the inevitable happened. There were reports of migrants collapsing with heart attacks on the road and others getting run over on highways by speeding trucks after having walked miles on foot. The images on television were heartrending and the coverage in mainstream newspapers was hard hitting. The op-eds in the western media were unflattering too.
Investigative reports on delays in getting Covid safety gears (PPEs) and the steady increase in numbers of doctors and paramedics testing COVID positive are now proving to be an embarrassment for the government. The lack of preparedness by the government on all these fronts is being exposed in the 24×7 news cycle.
This week Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reported to have met around two dozen media organisations to stress to them that they should desist from “negative coverage” during the pandemic. The government wants to control the narrative and that explains the appeal before the Supreme Court.
The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is launching Tracker-19 to monitor and evaluate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on journalism and to offer recommendations on how to defend the right to information. It will document state censorship and deliberate disinformation, and their impact on the right to reliable news and information. It will also make recommendations on how to defend journalism.
“The coronavirus crisis provides irrefutable proof of the relevance of our fight,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Censorship cannot be regarded as a country’s internal matter. Information control in a given country can have consequences all over the planet and we are suffering the effects of this today. The same goes for disinformation and rumours. They make people take bad decisions, they limit free will and they sap intelligence.”
While China and Iran have deported several western journalists there are two countries – Indonesia and Philippines who just last week clamped total censorship on their media. This has been condemned by media rights organisations universally. Philippines COVID-19 state of emergency includes prison time for spreading ‘false news’.
’Some of the most active centres of Covid-19 infection, such as China and Iran, are countries where the media have been unable to fulfil their role of informing the public,” Deloire said. “There is an urgent need to render an exhaustive and honest account of the obstacles to press freedom and the attempts to manipulate information during this unprecedented epidemic. I pay tribute to the work of the journalists all over the world who are taking risks, who are exposing themselves to the virus in order to report what is happening,” Deloire added “They are fulfilling an essential social function.
The world’s most powerful democracy, the United States, is tragically paying the price of ignoring signs early on as President Donald Trump at first had dismissed fears over the Carona Virus as just “Common flu”. Today, at the time of writing this article, the government is willing to accept that around 1,00,000 to 2,40,000 Americans could die in the coming weeks despite the country-wide lockdown.
If only the US President had demonstrated true leadership rather than viciously attacking an NBC News reporter Peter Alexander who asked what the President’s message would be to Americans who are frightened by the coronavirus pandemic that is spreading across the country. The exchange, which occurred at the White House’s daily coronavirus task force briefing in the early days of the epidemic, ensued when Alexander asked Trump whether he was giving Americans “false hope” by citing unproven coronavirus drugs. The US President went onto call Alexander a “fake” journalist who peddled “Fake”news and attacked him viciously before the world’s TV cameras.
The journalist was just doing his job in a democracy.
(Nupur Basu is a journalist and documentary filmmaker)