Amir Ullah Khan and Nahia Hussain
The role of the media in present times has been under serious criticism. Indian media, particularly the electronic media, has been seen as very rabid and pro establishment, with very few exceptions. The print media also has been under threat. In fact it is widely acknowledged that while there is still some dissent that one gets to read in the English Press, the vernacular has gone totally quiet. The pressure on them is big, from advertisers, readers and from the government itself. And ever since some leading dissenters writing and speaking in Marathi were killed by yet untracked assassins, there has ben a deathly quiet in the local press. Gauri Lankesh was killed in daylight in India’s IT capital and that also sent across a strong message to those who would dare write against the government.
The role of the media in the recent past, with the pandemic and the Chinese aggression has again been far from professional. While the coronavirus pandemic has been a litmus test of the extents and excesses of many institutions in the country, including the media, the period since the outbreak has been eventful for journalists and media organisations alike. Whether it was coverage of the exodus of migrants returning to their home states or Islamophobia packaged as primetime television news on coronavirus super-spreaders, reportage related to Covid-19 was consumed widely and quickly.
As was the case with several large congregations across the world that turned out to be super-spreaders of the virus, the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi had major repercussions on the management of the outbreak at the time. There were several lapses on part of the congregation, the government, as well as the police. The media, however, selectively targeted the Islamic body and its members. News channels spewed venom against the Jamaat and the Muslim community, and incited public opinions to give religious overtones to a disease. The reporting propagated Islamophobia and transformed the public health crisis into a communal one. The fact that other such religious gatherings did not garner the same amount of condemnation by the media, points to a glaring bias in reportage.
On the other hand, the mass internal migrations being described as a humanitarian crisis saw a largely mixed coverage by the media. The issue was sensationalised and inadequately covered. The stringent lockdown in place in India hindered the movement of journalists during this time. While the mass exodus in itself was underreported, a few exceptional channels and journalists did a great job at drawing public attention to it.
Journalists across the board have been facing steep pay-cuts and even termination of employment in recent times, a crisis that began much before the outbreak of Covid-19. Several leading media organisations; including the Times Group, Indian Express, the Quint and The Hindu have laid off employees or asked them to take pay-cuts in the light of revenue loss. Clampdowns on reporting intensified manifold after the lockdown came into effect.
India ranked 142 out of 180 nations in the World Press Freedom Index 2020. Few hours prior to the lockdown, owners and editors of mainstream print media were asked to publish positive stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. While the lockdown has exposed systemic faults in mainstream journalism, it has also brought about an upsurge in suppression of free press. Since the national lockdown was imposed, 55 journalists faced harassment by way of FIRs, show-cause notices, arrests, assaults and threats. Uttar Pradesh alone has booked eight journalists.
Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, founder and chief executive of SimpliCity was arrested after his website reported on the challenges faced by healthcare workers battling the coronavirus outbreak as well as corruption at a Public Distribution System outlet. A similar fate followed other journalists who raised alarm over the state of PHCs or inadequacies of PPEs.Jansandesh Times , a Hindi daily , was threatened with legal action, after it published a story on the Musahar community surviving on grass during the lockdown. An FIR was filed against Supriya Sharma, the executive editor of Scroll.in for allegedly misrepresenting facts in a report on the impact of the lockdown in a village adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The journalists have been booked under Indian Penal Code, Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987. Disaster Management Act, 2005 makes circulation of false news, causing panic, a criminal offence punishable.
The harassment of those expressing dissent is a characteristic trait of authoritarian governments and sets a bad precedent for a democracy such as India. Besides dealing with the physical and mental health risks of covering news during a pandemic, the media is also grappling with issues of fake news, sensationalism and censorship. During such times, it is imperative that institutions and laws find a proper balance between curbing an infodemic and allowing unbiased dissemination of information.
Amir Ullah Khan and Nahia Hussain are researchers at the Centre for Development Policy and practice
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