Government should view journalists as allies, not adversaries. Especially in a pandemic
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Government should view journalists as allies, not adversaries. Especially in a pandemic

There’s ample reason to believe that we are not getting the full picture of the coronavirus crisis from the government.

By Kalpana Sharma

Published on :

Phase 4 of the national lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 was announced on May 17. It also marked several important developments on the media front.

On May 19, the Supreme Court granted Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami a three-week extension from arrest in cases filed against him for his remarks about Congress president Sonia Gandhi on his television channel. Multiple FIRs had been filed against him in different parts of the country. The court vacated all the cases except the one in Nagpur that was shifted to Mumbai. At the same time, it turned down Goswami's request that the case be referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The significance of this interim order lies in some of the remarks made by the judges. According to the Indian Express, here are some of the court's observations:

“India’s freedoms will rest safe as long as journalists can speak truth to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal” and “free citizens cannot exist when the news media is chained to adhere to one position.”

“The petitioner is a media journalist. The airing of views on television shows which he hosts is in the exercise of his fundamental right to speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a).”

“The exercise of that fundamental right is not absolute and is answerable to the legal regime enacted with reference to the provisions of Article 19(2). But to allow a journalist to be subjected to multiple complaints and to the pursuit of remedies traversing multiple states and jurisdictions when faced with successive FIRs and complaints bearing the same foundation has a stifling effect on the exercise of that freedom.”

“This will effectively destroy the freedom of the citizen to know of the affairs of governance in the nation and the right of the journalist to ensure an informed society.”

The court also quoted the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari who said, “questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question”.

These observations must be viewed against the reality of what the Indian media faces today in India.

While Goswami has been granted relief, there are several journalists still facing serious charges, including under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, as in the case of the journalists in Kashmir; under sedition as in the case of the journalist in Gujarat whose apparent crime was to report that the Gujarat chief minister might be on his way out; and several others including the founding editor of the Wire, Siddharth Vardarajan, who faces charges filed by the Uttar Pradesh government.

Journalists are unable to "speak truth to power" in India because of the way the law is used to attempt to silence those who do. The International Federation of Journalists, in its recently released report on press freedom in South Asia, documents the assaults, killing and legal cases against scores of journalists across India and argues that this does not augur well for press freedom.

The court also spoke of the "freedom of the citizen to know of the affairs of governance". This is another aspect of press freedom, perhaps less noticed, that has been dented during the current Covid-19 crisis.

If you read newspapers or watch television, you will not necessarily be aware of this. Every day, we are bombarded with statistics, as well as human interest stories that leave you numb: of the continuing plight of the lakhs of workers and their families as they struggle to return to their homes, or of the afflicted who struggle to find a hospital bed in some of our better served cities. There are dozens of such reports that can be cited but here and here are two such stories.

But behind this abundance of data and reports, there appears to be a deliberate effort to fudge data, or at least to prevent access to accurate and verified data. Above all else, citizens want transparency from those who govern at a time like this. And yet, that is precisely what is being denied by the cover-up taking place in various forms.

One hint of this was recently evident when a report in the New Indian Express was taken down. According to Priyanka Pulla writing in the Wire, the report observed the sudden absence of representatives from the Indian Council of Medical Research at the daily press briefings held by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare since April 23. The report wondered if this was connected to the ICMR’s bungling of the import of antibody test kits from China that were found to be substandard and costly. The report also mentioned the unexplained disbanding of an expert panel on Covid-19 within days of it being constituted, as also experts and scientists being dissuaded from speaking to the media. The newspaper gave no explanation for why the article was taken off the website.

Pulla also pointed out that the absence of scientists at the daily press briefings has meant that no clear answers are being given to specific questions, such as when we expect to hit the peak with Covid-19 infections. Such a question can only be addressed by a scientist who is conversant with the data, and not a bureaucrat.

On the new digital platform, Article 14, Mridula Chari and Nitin Sethi went further when they argued that the decision to ease the lockdown is based on a "flawed database". The article, a detailed long-read, pointed out that while state governments have always relied on data from the National Centre for Disease Control and the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, the Centre had stipulated that only ICMR data would be used. As a result, there are several evident discrepancies between different lots of data.

Even if you are not interested in the minutiae, there is more than one reason to suspect that we are not getting the full picture of the spread of Covid-19. For instance, despite the rapid spread of the disease in the dense urban poor settlements in Mumbai, the government continues to insist that there is no community transmission. Similarly, the percentage of workers returning to their home states who are testing positive is much higher than the percentage of infection in the cities from which they left. How do we account for this? Did they pick it up enroute, or were they already infected but not detected in the cities where they worked?

Even if one gives the benefit of the doubt to the government that this is not deliberate, it certainly speaks of mismanagement. Because when there is a crisis of this proportion, the response must necessarily be based on accurate data from the ground up — about the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the availability of beds for people at different stages of the disease. If this is not available, how can people in charge plan effectively? And how are citizens to feel confident that the crisis is being managed well?

Compounding the confusion on data is the unexplained decision to suspend the daily press briefings since May 11. As a result, journalists are unable to even ask routine questions, even if the answers consist of a substantial amount of obfuscation. This surely comes in the way of "the right of the journalist to ensure an informed society”, as mentioned by the Supreme Court.

This government, like many others around the world, appears more anxious to prove how effective it has been in dealing with the pandemic rather than acknowledging the challenge it poses. A free and questioning media can be an ally at these times; it should not be seen as an adversary.

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Journalists on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis in India, as elsewhere, reporting from the ground and asking hard questions that need answers. Support independent media by subscribing to Newslaundry today, and pay to keep news free.

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