Until the COVID-19 pandemic struck Tamil Nadu, every television viewer would have witnessed a throng of journalists gathering around a minister or a secretary in attempts to get soundbites during pressers. But after the state began to record a spike in infections, leaders and bureaucrats have maintained a distance from journalists.
However, newspersons have hardly found any difference in the arrangements made for them to place their microphones and camcorders and, especially, to sit. They continue to huddle together amid the unavailability of hand sanitisers during press meets. Even the demands of journalists’ unions for cancellation of pressers have gone in vain.
In this backdrop, a photographer from the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), who covered Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami’s opening of sluices of the Mettur dam in Salem district on June 12, had tested positive for COVID-19. Later, state health minister C Vijayabaskar said the Chief Minister had tested negative for the disease.
However, this has prompted officials to ensure that all journalists got tested for the disease before covering events attended by Palaniswami.
The Chief Minister is set to travel to Salem on June 24 and will chair a meeting to discuss COVID-19 crisis in Coimbatore the next day. On June 26, he will inspect kudimaramathu (maintenance of water bodies) works in Trichy and chair another meeting in Salem on June 27, before returning to Chennai the next day.
So, journalists in Coimbatore, Trichy and Salem districts have been asked to undergo a test before covering these events. “We have been asked to undergo a COVID-19 test in case if we covered the Chief Minister’s programmes. However, we have also been told that press meets might get cancelled,” said a journalist based in Trichy.
While social distancing among journalists is ensured when Palaniswami addresses the media, it’s not being followed when his cabinet colleagues inspect their constituencies and distribute welfare materials. Personal secretaries of ministers compel journalists to cover the events and newspersons too fall prey to these in order to have a close rapport with ministers.
“While most Collectors have stopped conducting press meets due to fear over the spread of COVID-19, ministers continue to take part in events to distribute relief materials. But social distancing in seating arrangements is followed only for the public and not journalists, who gather around the leaders to get their soundbites,” said the journalist.
While bureaucrats have begun undergoing tests for COVID-19 to avoid complications, some ministers hold press meets even as they await test results. They also don’t reveal the results immediately.
For instance, state higher education minister KP Anbazhagan tested positive for the disease, but initially he denied it. Later, when leaders like MK Stalin, the DMK president, took to social media to wish the minister a speedy recovery, he disclosed that he had been infected by the virus. Journalists feel this poses a risk to their lives.
Press clubs in the state had issued many statements in this regard, and constantly been urging ministers not to conduct press meets and opt for virtual pressers. “But our demand has gone in vain,” said a broadcast journalist based in Chennai.
“Initially, the health minister and health secretary used to organise press meets at the office of the Directorate of Medical Services (DMS). We had been provided with have sanitisers and had followed social distancing. It was gradually given up in the following weeks,” the journalist said.
Unions have also complained that the state government had not offered any compensation to reporters. “It has provided ₹3,000 only to accredited journalists,” said DSR Subash, the president of the Tamil Nadu Union of Journalists.
He had been urged the government to distribute photos, footage and statements through the DIPR. “If a photographer among the Chief Minister’s entourage could contract the virus, how could other journalists covering the CM’s programmes be protected,” asked Subash, requesting the media to boycott all government events, including the Chief Minister’s.