Editors are doing everything other than journalism to protect their jobs and have forgotten their primary role – holding the government accountable.
This Monday was World Free Press Day and in 2021, India ranks 142 on the World Press Freedom Index. I genuinely think Indians are really the losers for not having a free press, ever so evident in the last seven years. Editors are doing everything other than journalism to protect their jobs and have forgotten their primary role – holding the government accountable.
It is no exaggeration to say the double mutant coronavirus seems to be swallowing people in large numbers, as crematoriums have no place. Yet, the Central government is hiding the actual death figures and the mainstream media, instead of holding the responsible leaders guilty, is busy covering up for them. It is the independent journalists and portals that are asking the harsh questions. Some have the courage to call what we are witnessing a ‘crime against humanity.’
On this very day, the editor of a leading channel apologized on Twitter for lying on air. How pathetic. The news channel in question, on May 2, in its rush to break sensational news, forgot the very basics of news. Without confirming from at least three, forget five sources, they broke the news that a Shiv Sena leader had threatened Adar Poonawalla, the owner of Serum Institute of India, for not releasing Covishield vaccines. Promptly, the Bharatiya Janata Party of Maharashtra, which had suffered setbacks as their leader and former CM Devendra Fadnavis was forced to exit a Nashik hospital for not adhering to Covid-19 protocol and another ex-minister Girish Mahajan was booed away by a woman for failing to do the same, circulated videos and messages against the Sena.
It is a well-known fact that Fadnavis has not got over the shock of the Sena joining hands with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi government. The video with nasty comments against the Sena went viral and promptly, the Sena sent a letter on May 3 to the owner of the news channel, urging him to take action against the star anchor for claiming to show ‘Sena goons’ threatening Adar Poonawalla. The letter, written by the Minister for Industry Subhash Desai, also demanded the anchor express apology “on the same platform that he has voiced this fake news on”. But what we got was a tweet to this effect and the editor anchor saying it was a video of Raju Shetti, president of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana threatening SII.
Also Read: “Head Will Be Chopped Off If I Comment About Elections Or Kumbh”: Adar Poonawalla To UK Daily
However, this is not the tragedy of Indian media. The issue is how the government does NOT want free media and the media seems to have meekly acquiesced. Those who ask questions are not spared and as a result, the majority seem to toe the line. Just look at the figures, nearly 70 journalists have been detained in 2020. They were interrogated over reports they have written or shown and much worse, over 100 journalists have died so far, of coronavirus. Worse still, journalists in India are under attack, with reports of there have been 142 attacks on journalists in the last two years.
This is the gory side of reporting in India in the last seven years. The contempt Prime Minister Narendra Modi has for the media and especially those who question him is widely known. Only the foreign media can pose tough questions. But now on a par with them are independent journalists, local journalists who report to local YouTube channels and portals, that are courageously asking the tough questions. Just two days prior to World Free Press Day, the ‘Listening Post’, for the second consecutive week exposed how mainstream Indian media had failed to cover important issues. India is the epicenter of coronavirus in the world and there were 380,000 new cases in a single day this week. It is the foreign media that has been pulling all the punches. But they picked up their leads from local news reports. Across all states, the regional media and journalists have exposed the failure of the governments. In fact, when a reporter from a Gujarat daily asked the Gujarat CM how a leader from his party had arranged 5,000 Remdesivir injections, the CM said “Ask him (CR Patil)”. Based on this statement, the Gujarati daily published the BJP party leader’s number, saying the Gujarat CM had asked those in need to call the leader for the medicine free of cost. The anger among people at being denied medicines and health facilities which has led to a high number of deaths are issues, more from the mainstream media should have taken the lead in reporting. Instead, what we got was blatant lies and cover-up, be it leading national newspapers or television channels.
Although all news channels had been shown visuals of crowded rallies and festival celebrations, Indian editors and anchors failed to question the government for allowing such events, both of which have proved to be super spreaders. In fact, just before the second wave, members of a scientific forum set up by the Central government had warned of a new variant, feared to be highly contagious. While there were stray reports like these, never did they become the topic of prime time debates or chat shows in India. While on France 24, prime time news coverage on Monday, the anchor asked the expert on international affairs why elections in five Indian states had been allowed in the first place. Here is what he had to say. “Why on earth were elections held at all? People were seen gasping for air due to lack of oxygen, on the roads. While elections in West Bengal were held in eight phases, starting from the end of March. Modi and his Home Minister held rallies across the state with no one wearing masks. Along with the elections, a lot of Hindu festivals were allowed and there has been a huge backlash of Narendra Modi’s serious mishandling of the outbreak.” Such scathing reports in foreign media gave some strength to the local reporters who have been exposing the complete collapse of public health services in India.
As if this health crisis was not enough, vaccine shortage has severely hampered the nationwide immunization drive. Only two companies are manufacturing Covid vaccines in India, SII and Bharat Biotech. The first, basic question that needs to be asked is why are citizens being denied their basic right to live as they are not getting health services? The entire set-up reeks of malicious intent. We are seeing how he has been treating states with non-BJP governments.
Maharashtra is the leading example. We have seen how the Centre and leading Delhi journalists have criticized the state for being a corona hotspot. It must be said here the state government and the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation have been doing a good job in helping patients be home quarantined and with medicines, hospital beds, and jumbo covid centers. Information on every new case is sent to the ward war rooms. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, has imposed mobility restrictions and the numbers in Mumbai are now reducing slowly and consistently. From a scary high of 20.8 percent at the beginning of April, they have now reduced to 9.9 percent by the end of the month. But the state is facing the usual delays in getting oxygen, Remdesivir injections, other medicines, and vaccines. It is this centralised control and distribution that has cost numerous lives. CM Thackeray quipped in his matter-of-fact style, “Maharashtra is being blamed for the most number of cases, but let me tell you, Maharashtra is also number one in testing and vaccinating the most number of people. We have asked the PM for more vaccines, I’m hoping he will consider. All of us are waiting for the jabs.”
The problem is, the Central government just failed to anticipate the tsunami that the second coronavirus wave would be. They did not book enough vaccines in advance. Every day we are seeing people taking to Social Media to share their grief, ask for help and stories of families being asked by doctors to remove the ventilator from their senior citizen relative to save a younger corona patient too are being shared widely. Today we elite and the middle-class are heard complaining of the collapse of public health services, but let me remind you, these never existed in the first place, especially for the poor. It is only now we and our family/friends are getting affected. Now we are facing the situation which poor have lived with for generations. Not all media has focused on this harsh truth.
Meanwhile, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of SII is said to have flown to London to get away from the pressure. He first aired his misgivings about the pricing of Covishield, which his company is manufacturing in collaboration with Oxford/AstraZeneca. He told the Financial Times, there would be a shortage of vaccines for another two months because the Modi government did not prepare for the second wave. This shortage is expected to continue till July. In fact, the Joe Biden government that was under pressure to donate vaccines to India has said the Modi government did not request his administration for ready-for-use vaccines.
The media, which till now was considered the fourth pillar of our democracy, is now tottering, barely balanced on half a leg. This time, the Supreme Court has taken suo motu cognizance of the prevailing chaotic situation. The SC on Monday directed the Central and state governments to consider imposing a ban on mass gatherings and super spreader events. But the ground reality is rather grim. Our media has stopped covering people’s voices and stories. There is no centralized helpline, nor are news channels flashing information on the availability or shortage of beds, oxygen, and health services.
However, it must be said, reporting on courts has by and large been free of the pressures on most other beats. But in recent times, we have seen the previous CJI and agencies object to free and fair reporting by the media. Recently, the Election Commission of India filed a plea in the SC against the reportage of certain oral observations made by the Madras High Court by the media. The SC made few oral observations on the role of media. The bench of Justices DY Chadrachud MR Shah is hearing the matter. On World Free Press Day one could not have hoped for better.
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)