On May 29, News18.com reported on low quality N95 masks and lack of personal protective equipment components at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. The story was based on statements by Dr Srinivas Rajkumar T, General Secretary of the Resident Doctors’ Association at AIIMS.
Nearly 48 hours later, the story has been edited beyond recognition, replaced by a denial from AIIMS. Dr Rajkumar has been expelled from the RDA. A viral tweet by a News18 reporter, allegedly showing low-grade N95 masks supplied at AIIMS, has been deleted.
The affair has all the elements of a media outlet facing pressure to rescind a report — and a tweet — critical of the Narendra Modi government and AIIMS. This has occurred under this regime, and Dr Rajkumar’s expulsion from RDA only intensifies the spotlight on the issue of media censorship.
The original News18 story on May 29 () had pointed out that in “48 hours alone over 50 staff have tested positive for Covid-19”. It added that around 195 Health Care Workers, or HCWs, had tested positive, and several had lost their lives, including the sanitation chief and a mess worker at AIIMS.
“Workers in their position are given only gloves and masks, not PPEs,” the story claimed.
However, on May 30, the story was and practically nullified. Its eight paragraphs were trimmed down to five, of which only two were from the original story, shifted further below. The remaining three new paragraphs were a denial issued by AIIMS to the original story.
The pictures showing purportedly low quality N95 masks at AIIMS published in the original story have been removed.
The earlier headline, “'Not Worried About Virus But Govt Apathy': Lack of PPEs Makes AIIMS Healthcare Staff Target for Covid” has been changed to, “AIIMS Dismisses Allegations Around Quality of PPE Kits and Masks, Says Specified Standards Being Met."
On May 29, the New Indian Express also this story, which has not been modified.
The original News18 story quoted Dr Rajkumar of AIIMS. “It’s not the virus that we are worried about. It’s the apathy of the government and the AIIMS administration that worries us,” he said, alleging that doctors at AIIMS had been “writing and fighting for the safety of hostel premises, poor sanitation, lack of proper quarantine protocol and need for adequate testing.”
Rajkumar added that the N95 masks supplied at AIIMS “do not meet even MOHFW safety standards, forget international standards.” He added: “Our relentless pursuit of resident welfare has been met with threats from administration and attempts to jeopardise the career of RDA executives by the administration.”
Rajkumar’s fears came true. On May 29, the day the story was published, the RDA put up a notice expelling him. He was “condemned” by the body for a “false media statement”.
“As per the Constitution of RDA AIIMS, New Delhi, in consideration of the opinions of all the executives, the decision of expulsion with immediate effect was taken which was supported with 2/3rd majority of the executives,” said the notice.
The expulsion notice against Dr Rajkumar at AIIMS.
In a denial that is now at the forefront of News18’s cosmetically modified story, AIIMS insists that the N95 marks met the standards set by the ministry of health and family welfare. It said that coronavirus affected employees at AIIMS “did not have any evidence of transmission from the patient care activities based on detailed evaluation by the Contact Tracing Team. Of these, a large majority came from containment zones".
On May 28, Runjhun Sharma, a reporter at News18, had tweeted a picture, purportedly showing low-quality N95 masks supplied at AIIMS. The tweet, with Rajkumar’s quote, went viral, garnering more than 9,500 retweets. It was further shared by Congress leaders such as Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Jairam Ramesh.
In response, the Press Information Bureau tweeted to announce that the News18 story was “incorrect”, “baseless” and contained “misleading claims”.
The "fact checker", , also smeared the report in the New Indian Express.
Somrita Ghosh, a reporter who broke the story for the New Indian Express, hit back at the PIB Fact Check on Twitter.
Sharma’s tweet, however, has been deleted.
The entire affair raises an important question: if AIIMS issued a denial against a serious charge made by one of its doctors, News18 could have simply updated the story with the denial. This is a standard practice in the media. However, the media outlet not only removed important and critical portions of the story, it also changed the headline and restructured it. Moreover, what explains Sharma’s missing tweet?
Newslaundry reached out to Sharma and News18 Executive Editor Zakka Jacob for comment. Sharma declined to comment, and calls and texts to Jacob did not yield any response.
Newslaundry emailed a set of questions to corporate communications at Network18. Here is their response in full:
“The original version of the story, attributed to one doctor, was filed and published without first reaching out to AIIMS or the health ministry, which is the standard practice. After AIIMS issued its denial, the story was changed to update it with new information and in the interest of fairness.
“The first tweet, which was put up before even the story was published, violated Network18’s Social Media guidelines which clearly state the following:
“Break all stories on TV, on our websites or through the social media accounts of the brands you belong to. DO NOT break stories on personal handles. Actively promote the social media accounts of our brands.””
Network18 chose to not respond to Newslaundry’s question about the accusations levelled by PIB Fact Check.
The News18 story was accompanied by a picture of the N95 masks at AIIMS.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Rajkumar said that these were not N95 masks “in form and function”. He said: “It does not conform to the guidelines and it does not have any proper certification. I have evidence to prove it.”
Pictures of N95 masks at AIIMS published in the original News18 story and in Sharma’s now deleted tweet.
Dr Rajkumar told Newslaundry that he stands by his statements. “I’ll continue to stand by them come what may,” he said. “The government is trying to suppress the truth. 200 people at AIIMS have been infected already. Resident doctors can’t even get a room at the main AIIMS, they’ve been asked to go to Jhajjar in Haryana. There is a shortage of beds for the staff.”
In April, Rajakumar and others in the RDA had that the AIIMS administration had redirected Rs 50 lakh from Bharat Dynamics to the PM Cares fund rather than buying personal protection equipment, which was the fund’s original purpose.
Rajkumar added that the decision to expel him from the RDA was bogus because, contrary to the claims in the notice, it did not have the majority vote. “I have the support of a majority of resident doctors,” he said. Asked about News18’s edited story, he alleged that the Modi government is trying to target media houses for reporting facts.
Newslaundry asked Network18 to comment on Dr Rajkumar’s claim and his expulsion. It chose to not respond to the questions.
This is not the first time that a story critical of the Modi government has been met with such a treatment at Network18. In May 2019, Firstpost — a digital property of the Network18 group — carried an article on Modi’s “impromptu” interview with News Nation. It was within a day without explanation.
In June 2018, Firstpost, along with Times Now and the New Indian Express, an article on district cooperative banks in Ahmedabad receiving hundreds of crores in banned currency in the immediate aftermath of demonetisation in 2016. Again, the outlets did not offer any explanation.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown how precarious the media model that runs on ads, from governments or corporations, is. And how essential it's for the media to be powered by paying readers and viewers in order to be free and independent. Support independent media by subscribing to Newslaundry, and pay to keep news free.