As anniversaries go, we are on the cusp of one that the government is unlikely to mark but the ordinary people of India will remember for years to come. On March 24, 2020, at 8 pm, the prime minister appeared on national television and, without prior warning, announced a national lockdown that would come into effect in four hours.
Even the shock of his demonetisation announcement on November 8, 2016, also at 8 pm, did not compare to this. The common factor in both announcements, three and a half years apart, was that the poor were the ones who paid the price.
As we approach March 24, 2021, the poor in India are still paying the price for that fateful decision.
The lockdown was necessitated, we were told, to curb the spread of coronavirus. But despite the cruel and often heartless implementation of the lockdown, the virus continued to spread over the next six months. Today, the cases are lower than at the peak, but the crisis has not ended. In all, the virus has afflicted at least 1.14 crore Indians and killed more than one and half lakh.
What have we in the media learned from our coverage of the pandemic, including the impact of the lockdown?
Let us remember that two days before this announcement, Narendra Modi and some of his ministers had met with media owners and editors. According to report by Sagar in Caravan magazine, "The prime minister’s website reported that the journalists committed to 'work on the suggestions of the prime minister to publish inspiring and positive stories' about COVID-19. After the interaction, some owners and editors who were present in the meeting took to Twitter to the prime minister for making them a part of the video conference and seeking their opinions, while others published reports on the meeting on the front page the next day, with photos of themselves and Modi on the television screen."
The tone of acceptable coverage was set. The government desired "positive" stories. But the fallout of the lockdown was anything but positive as lakhs of men and women, who had migrated to cities for work, fled on foot or with whatever they could find by way of transport to return to their homes thousands of kilometres away. That was the big story, one that no media house, however "positive" it wanted to be, could ignore.
It is the visuals of the great Indian exodus, perhaps one of the greatest that this country has seen since Partition, that will live on as the abiding memory of 2020, a year when the pandemic overwhelmed all else.
Yet, today, if we look at the media, we would be hard put to remember that this actually happened. We still do not have a clear picture of how many of those men and women returned; if they did whether they found work and shelter; if they did not whether they were able to eke out a living in their villages; and how many of them were afflicted by the disease that upended their precarious lives on March 24.
Many journalists did an exemplary job capturing the human tragedy unfolding across India. It was not an easy task. Even as they set out to report, their colleagues in the media were losing their jobs and media houses were unwilling to put the resources needed for such reporting. Despite this, we read stories that will be remembered.
An angle that was missed by most media platforms was that of gender. Migrants were mostly men, but there were also women. Some were part of families, but there were many women who had migrated to cities for work and were stranded without jobs or some place to live. Their stories were largely missing in the reportage.
This is one of the important conducted by and the on the gender perspective of the media coverage of the pandemic. Released last week, it is worth a closer look not just for the statistics but because it brings out a point that is relevant for the media at all times: that a gender perspective needs to be integrated into all reporting if we want to tell the full story. Without it, we miss out on literally half the population, particularly so during a crisis.
The study restricted its analysis to print media and looked at coverage from March to September 2020. It studied a sample of 12 mainstream newspapers in seven languages and found that only 4.8 per cent of the 6,110 news items analysed had "anything of significance with regard to women and/or gender issues".
That story, of how women and girls survived through this year of the pandemic, has still to be told in full. In fact, the on Home Affairs has found that there has been an increase in cases of domestic violence and trafficking. According to the report, "The female migrant workers and their children were trafficked and had gone missing during lockdowns.” But we have read little of this in the media.
Also, apart from domestic workers, about whom there have been some reports, there are thousands of women in the service industry who have lost their jobs. Where are these women? What are they doing? How have they survived? We also know little of what women faced when their men returned to the village without a job.
The other challenge that the media continues to face is how to cover the pandemic. After a while, the data means little to readers. They look at the daily numbers, which must be reported, but often fail to make the connections.
The media has been constantly challenged, not just in India but around the world, to find ways to keep on telling this story, of a virus that continues to spread, of health services breaking down, of growing fear and anxiety and of the lives that have been devastated by suffering and loss.
Currently, we also face the dilemma of how to report on the safety of the vaccines being administered. Initially, there was the controversy about the home-grown Covaxin that was cleared for emergency use even though its phase three trials were not complete.
And now we have controversies surrounding the that has been rolled out as Covishield in India. Several countries in Europe have suspended its use. Yet, the World Health Organisation reiterates it is safe.
How do we in the media report this when several lakh people in this country have already received the first dose? Most people only read headlines. How can we ensure that what is reported is science-based and balanced?
The jury is still out on this but the dilemma is a genuine one. You cannot ignore these reports, or the adverse reactions to the vaccine reported in India, even if they are a handful. At the same time, as several experts have emphasised, the percentage of adverse reactions is so low that they ought not to undermine confidence in the efficacy of the vaccine.
Objectivity and balance is often a fine line that the media has to tread. As Marty Baron, who recently retired as editor of the Washington Post put it in interview with the New Yorker: "The idea of objectivity – I should make clear – it’s not neutrality, it’s not both-sides-ism, it’s not so-called balance. It’s never been that. That’s not the idea of objectivity. But once we do our reporting, once we do a rigorous job and we’re satisfied that we’ve done the job in an appropriate way, we’re supposed to tell people what we’ve actually found. Not pretend that we didn’t learn anything definitive. Not meet all sides equally if we know that they’re not equal. It’s none of that. It’s to tell people in an unflinching way what we have learned, what we have discovered."
Can the Indian media report in an "unflinching way" given the attitude of this government towards it?
If we had any doubts about that, they have been firmly dispelled by what is perhaps the most significant story of this year, as far as the media is concerned. A group of ministers met last year and discussed how to make the media fall in line and "neutralise" those who do not, as reported in and elsewhere. The ministers also consulted a number of journalists, one of whom reportedly suggested colour coding journalists into green for the undecided, black for opponent and white for supporter. There has been no official denial of this meeting.
If we read the details of the meetings, now available in the public domain, and also consider the pre-lockdown messages from the government to the media, its strategy for media control is crystal clear. The latest move that will affect the few spaces that still remain for critical and independent coverage of events could be the that will regulate digital news platforms.
The message is literally staring us in the face in black and white.
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