The lockdown in India, unlike in many other countries, has failed to flatten the Covid-19 curve. Nevertheless, it hit hard the free flow of information relating to the coronavirus, authorities’ response to the pandemic and critical views on governmental actions over the prevailing situation. A number of regimes across the globe, including the United States and China, too behaved similarly as far as free speech and criticism are concerned. Journalism has become the first victim in such an aggressive environment dominated by fake news and intolerance to diverse opinions.
Bullying the media for taking up issues of substandard safety equipment, mismanagement in Covid-dedicated hospitals, quarantine houses, etc, can be seen in many countries. US officials have openly attacked the media for its reporting on Covid-19. Critics say there has been a litany of scientifically baseless, false, misleading or confusing statements from President Donald Trump and other officials for months. In India, some Hindutva organisations have prescribed Gomutra (cow urine), Ganges water, etc, as medicines to prevent the virus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is fond of addressing people directly and he doesn’t like to address press conferences. Representatives of the Indian Council of Medical Sciences (ICMR) have been missing in the Health Ministry’s press conferences since the issue of purchasing rapid test kits at exorbitant rate surfaced. Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said that in situations where governments effectively bypass the press and speak directly to the people or do not give them proper access to relevant officials and experts, it can lead to incorrect or misleading information being passed on to the population.
Former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had said that the media was overplaying the dangers of the disease as a way to ‘bring down the President’. The New York Times revealed a story on the White House move “to tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearance with the office of Vice-President Mike Pence, according to several officials familiar with the new approach.”
Since the emergence of Covid-19 at the end of last year in China and its subsequent transformation into a pandemic, there have been growing concerns over the treatment of reporters covering the outbreak in some States. Some have even vanished, presumably taken by police and detained in unknown locations. Thirteen journalists working for The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post had their credentials revoked by Chinese authorities.
In Serbia, all local crisis headquarters and medical institutions were directed by the government in Belgrade to send any information about the coronavirus pandemic to the central Crisis Staff led by Prime Minister Ana Brnabic – which will then inform the public about anything regarding Covid-19. In Iran, which has seen some of the highest infection and death rates in the world, quite a few reporters are now facing jail after being detained for challenging official statistics about the outbreak in the country. Over 130 people, most of whom are journalists, have been arrested since the end of February for allegedly publishing false information.
In Malaysia, dozens of people, including a journalist, have been arrested for allegedly spreading false information about the virus via social media. There have been similar arrests across Asia, including in India, Thailand and Indonesia.
In India, the government has blamed the media for causing panic among migrant workers, leading to their exodus in the wake of the lockdown. The Indian government had said this in an affidavit to the Supreme Court of India. The Editors Guild of India had stated it is “deeply perturbed” over the government blaming the media in the Supreme Court for causing panic among migrant workers.
The Central government also sought a direction from the Supreme Court that no media outlet print, publish or telecast anything on the coronavirus without ascertaining facts from the mechanism provided by the government. The Supreme Court, however, has given direction to the media to publish the official government version as well about the Covid-19 developments.
Since the lockdown, FIRs have been filed against six journalists in Himachal Pradesh for questioning the authorities’ preparedness to combat the pandemic. Dhaval Patel, editor and owner of Gujarati website, Face of Nation, was detained by the Ahmedabad Crime Branch on May 11 following an FIR against him under IPC Section 124(a) and DMA for his article of May 7, which said Rajya Sabha MP Mansukh Mandaviya was being called by New Delhi to discuss a change in Gujarat owing to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani’s failure in handling Covid-19. Worse, Patel was singled out for his report though other media outlets too ran it.
The Indian Journalists Union has expressed grave concern over rising cases of State governments intimidating, harassing and detaining journalists from reporting the truth by misusing the sedition law as well as the Disaster Management Act (DMA).
Even some doctors and health workers have been warned against divulging anything to the press regarding the healthcare sector of the country. In Kashmir, Director of Health Services, has directed doctors and paramedics not to share information with the media about the ongoing crisis.
Explaining why a country with a democratic government and a free press is not affected by a famine, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had said that if there is a free press, it would raise alarm in advance in case of any food shortage and the democratic government would respond to it by mobilising food domestically or seeking assistance from other countries. This is also true in the case of a pandemic.
If the press is not allowed to expose the real situation and limitation of the authorities in combating the crisis, the pandemic would worsen, rather than improve. We hope that good sense will prevail upon the government and it will face this grave challenge posed by the new virus with the spirit of democracy, the basic components of which are transparency, free speech and, of course, free press.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)
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