Looking back, 2020: Five times Indian media censored itself

A year of retracted reports, spiked columns and a fear psychosis in Kashmir.

WrittenBy:Rebecca Rose Varghese
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India ranks 142nd in the World Press Freedom Index, below Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and even occupied Palestine.

This year, journalists faced attacks while covering the communal carnage in Delhi in late February and obstructions while reporting on the coronavirus lockdown during the summer. Penal charges were used indiscriminately to intimidate reporters digging stories critical of the government’s pandemic response. In Kashmir, several journalists were slapped with the draconian anti-terror law the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

The year also witnessed censorship in Indian newsrooms, manifesting in retracted news reports, spiked columns, and stories that never saw the light of day. Before 2020 ends, here are five of the instances when sections of the media were forced to censor themselves, some out of fear of state reprisals, and others due to sheer spinelessness.

New Indian Express withdraws report on government’s Covid strategy

According to a report in the Caravan magazine in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked several media houses to refrain from publishing negative stories on his government’s response to the pandemic. On May 8, the New Indian Express published a report online on the government’s authoritarian response to the coronavirus pandemic by journalist Sumi Sukanya Dutta. It was pulled down the next day.

Headlined “Centre’s Covid-19 Communication Plan: hold back data, gag agencies and scientists”, the story detailed the government’s reluctance and irresponsibility in sharing pandemic data as well as the sudden absence of Indian Council of Medical Research scientists from the health ministry’s daily Covid press briefings.

Dutta pointed out that the government wasn’t giving out important data, making it impossible for patients to know which hospitals to visit for treatment. She also questioned the absence of ICMR scientists in the health ministry’s daily briefings after April 23, and explained that the agency’s chief of epidemiology, Raman Gangakhedkar, and the director general, Balram Bhargava, had stayed away from press briefings after journalists pointed out that there was low accuracy in the rapid diagnostic tests that the ICMR had obtained from China.

According to the report, ICMR scientists had been asked to avoid speaking with journalists. “The health ministry, on the other hand, does not seem to like questions,” Dutta wrote, “not only from the press but even from scientists.”

News18 amends reports on poor quality masks at AIIMS

In May, a news report by News18 on the lack of PPE kits at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences was edited beyond recognition. The report, titled “‘Not Worried About Virus But Govt Apathy’: Lack of PPEs Makes AIIMS Healthcare Staff Target for Covid” and published on May 29, began by pointing out that there had been a rapid rise in the number of infected healthcare workers at the hospital. It quoted Dr Srinivas Rajkumar T, general secretary of the AIIMS Resident Doctors Association, as saying that the government had been apathetic to their requests for safe hostel premises, proper sanitation, effective quarantine protocols, and better quality N95 face masks. He added that the demands had been met with threats by the hospital administration to jeopardise the careers of RDA executives.

The doctor was later expelled from AIIMS for the remarks he had made in the report.

The article was completely transformed by May 30. Now entitled, “AIIMS Dismisses Allegations Around Quality of PPE Kits and Masks, Says Specified Standards Being Met”, it quoted the hospital as saying that its N95 masks met the standards set by the health ministry. It added that based on a detailed evaluation by the Contact Tracing Team, it had been concluded that there was no evidence that the virus was transmitted among employees through patient care activities.

A cached copy of the original article is still available online.

Hindustan Times withdraws PTI report on NITI Aayog CEO

In December, Hindustan Times withdrew a Press Trust of India report on NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant complaining that India had “too much democracy”.

In a Swarajya interview, Kant had said India was “too much of a democracy so we keep supporting everybody". He reiterated it in the context of reforms, claiming that tough reforms are “very difficult in the Indian context, we have too much of democracy”.

After Hindustan Times carried a PTI report on Kant’s comments, he denied making them.

Journalists pointed to his video interview and refuted Kant’s denial. And yet, Hindustan Times did not provide any explanation on the withdrawn report.

Hindustan Times spikes Ramachandra Guha’s column

The English daily makes a second appearance in this list thanks to its alleged refusal to publish historian Ramchandra Guha’s column critical of the Modi government’s Central Vista project.

On April 18, Guha announced that he would end his regular column for the paper because it had censored him. He added that his editors at the paper had been willing to publish the article, but were “overruled by their bosses and by the management”.

In his column, which was eventually published on the Wire, Guha argued that the Rs 20,000-crore project to demolish and rebuild historic structures in New Delhi displayed the Modi government’s vanity and that the money could be better spent on the pandemic that had affected millions of people.

Kashmir media blacks out news of pellet firing on religious gathering

In a report published by the Print in October, its Srinagar correspondent Azaan Javaid detailed how the fear of attacks and humiliation by the state apparatus was suffocating journalism in Kashmir. The report claimed that media outlets were being raided and journalists intimidated with police interrogations.

On August 29 and 30, the police targeted Muharram processions in Srinagar, firing pellets on mourners, injuring over 40 of them. Javaid’s report quoted BBC journalist Shafat Farooq as saying that the local media had blacked out the news, though national and international media covered it.

According to freelance journalist Aakash Hassan, quoted in the report, “the fear psychosis” among local journalists had led to “self-censorship”. It began before the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, when rumours on mass arrests of local politicians, activists and journalists had spread throughout the state. Though journalists were not arrested, he told the Print that the fear of attack and harassment by the police had forced them into self-censorship and led to a reluctance in reporting the ground realities.

Rebecca Rose Varghese is an editorial intern at Newslaundry.


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