Opinion

Reporters’ Crisis: Dying In Covid Harness

Sadly, it is not just the virus that is debilitating, it is the current political dispensation and the pressures too that have rendered the media sector rather weak and voiceless.

Times have been tough and getting tougher by the day for journalists. While on the one hand reporters are fighting at the forefront to get the real stories, there are pressures from within and without. As they struggle to keep their jobs, they are fighting hard to stay alive. According to a study released in early May, over 300 journalists have died since the pandemic broke out. Nearly three journalists died every day in April 2021 alone and this increased to four per day, with a total of 60 deaths in one month alone. Some senior and well-known and some young lost their battle to Covid-19 and even some who had recovered. It has been devastating, to say the least. According to the Delhi-based Institute of Perception studies, 101 journalists died between April 1-28.

Sadly, it is not just the virus that is debilitating, it is the current political dispensation and the pressures too that have rendered the media sector rather weak and voiceless.

Sadly, it is not just the virus that is debilitating, it is the current political dispensation and the pressures too that have rendered the media sector rather weak and voiceless.

 

Every government in India seems to use sedition as a weapon to silence sane voices that demand accountability. According to a study by independent journalist Geeta Seshu, 154 journalists were arrested, detained, or interrogated between 2010-2020, while 40 per cent of these cases were in 2020 alone. However, what is more, perturbing is that in a report titled ‘India: Media’s crackdown during Covid-19 lockdown’, collated by the Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG), 55 journalists faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show-cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats, for reporting on Covid-19.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we have seen that the Union government has not been open to sharing real information, the number of those dead, the unavailability of health services, oxygen beds, and even the decision to manufacture vaccines. The pattern of secrecy has been about the pre-orders, disparity in requirements and the supplies, and the most of all, the shameful episode of the migrant workers’ exodus from the cities. Over a year ago, during the hearing of two petitions regarding the welfare of migrant workers during the 21-day lockdown, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta demanded that the Supreme Court to allow the Centre to control media coverage on the pandemic. Evidently, the government did not want journalists to independently report on the pandemic without ascertaining the information from the Union government. It would be no exaggeration to say the government has been wanting to control the news published on any platform. Small mercies that the bench comprising of the former Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justice L Nageshwar Rao did not concede this demand but it also did not stop them from commenting on the news coverage of the migrant workers’ issue.

The migration of a large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months. Such panic-driven migration has caused untold suffering to those who believed and acted on such news. In fact, some have lost their lives in the process. It is, therefore, not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print, or social media.” they said.

The migrant exodus of 2020 after a lockdown was announced.

 

In the last few months, we have been seeing how there has been immense pressure on Indian reporters from reporting accurately, with the fear of being arrested under various sections, including sedition charges. The fact is, our people are not being given an accurate picture regarding the actual deaths due to the virus. People’s agony, their sufferings, and the pathetic state of the administration, especially the Central government, have been highlighted by the regional and foreign media. Those affected by the virus have simply lost hope. Forget owning up to the mismanagement, the government has seemingly sent out a strong message to the public that they are on their own, ‘atmanirbhar’.

However, the public has seen footage in the foreign media that depicted the pathetic lack of dignity accorded to those who succumbed to the virus. People were denied last rites, their relatives could not afford cremations and finally, when reports began exposing the pathetic conditions in states like Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments, both at the state and Centre, did not take them in stride. Apart from blatantly denying there was a collapse of health services, the Uttar Pradesh CM threatened to invoke the National Security Act and the Gangsters’ Act against those ‘anti-social elements’ spreading false rumours. Basically, a threat that even if one could not find a bed in the hospital they could not be complaining about it, or else…

UP CM Yogi Adityanath has threatened to invoke NSA against ‘anti-social elements’ spreading rumours

 

Reports and photographs showing long queues outside hospitals, as people struggled to get oxygen beds and similar queues outside crematoriums, a battle to get space for cremating their loved ones highlighted the pathos. Despite these heart-breaking visuals and stories, warnings had been issued about not showing the truth. Anuj Awasthi is one such reporter who exposed how oxygen supplies were being diverted from his district to another city. He, of course, received a show-cause notice from the district administration for reporting the real situation from the field.

It is no mere quip then that during the hearing of a suo motu case regarding Covid- 19 management, Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud, heading a three-judge bench at the Supreme Court quipped, “A news report yesterday showed a dead body being thrown into a river. I don’t know if a sedition case has been filed against the news channel yet.” It does not bode well for the people of India that there are serious attempts being made by those in power to deny us the basic information which we are supposed to get from our media. In fact, the threats do not stop at severe charges like sedition, NSA, and so on being slapped on journalists.

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The government is doing its best to control social media, a medium the BJP has thrived on. Now, attempts are being made to control information technology through a new intrusive act. Retired Supreme Court Justice B N Srikrishna, who was heading the expert committee formed by the Government of India, in August 2017, to identify key data-protection issues after a thorough study had clearly stated the government was trying to make inroads into the fundamental right to privacy. The government wants to make the information technology law more stringent.

These are challenging times for the media and some of our really good journalists, risking their lives to get us the real stories and information, need the full support of the public. One way for the readers would be to extend all support to independent media, while they really should try to avoid, or even boycott a few publications and channels that have become government mouthpieces. The public is being way too patient and worse, ignorant. It is time the heads of the state, the two main ones, leaders specifically, now need to face up to the real hard questions.

You know, interestingly, the Covid-19 virus has spared nobody. Cutting across economic and caste lines, the virus this time round has meted out a deadlier and bigger jolt. So, while new ideas for the ‘positive thinking’ camp have been called for, it is time those close to the PM and his coterie become answerable. And the only way they can achieve it is by allowing journalists to report the truth.

It is a bit surprising that all have lost the zest to bang thaalis and light diyas.

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