Stalked by coronavirus, hounded by the state, losing jobs: Is nobody looking out for Indian journalists?

The post-pandemic media scene is grim, with fewer jobs and shrinking spaces to report without fear.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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When journalists and journalism become the news, we need to be concerned.

In the course of the last 72 hours, three journalists in Kashmir have been slapped with cases, two under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for posts on social media and the other for reporting "factually incorrect" news.

While such cases and intimidation by the police and the security forces are a daily hazard that journalists in Kashmir have had to contend with for decades, as this report in The Caravan documents, the FIR against one of the few women journalists in Kashmir is surely a first.

Masrat Zahra is an exceptionally talented young photojournalist whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She has broken new ground in a state where journalism has been almost exclusively a male domain. Today, apart from Zahra, there are several women journalists who stand out for their courage and for the quality of their work.

Charged under the UAPA for Facebook posts from 2008 and 2018, as reported by Scroll, and identified only as a "Facebook user" and not a journalist, the FIR against her is bizarre in more ways than one. Why she has been singled out, and that too for posts of photographs that have been published, will unravel in the days to come.

What is concerning, however, is the message that this sends out. By slapping cases on two experienced journalists apart from Zahra – Peerzada Ashiq from The Hindu and author and journalist Gowhar Geelani – are the powers-that-be in Kashmir, who take directions directly from New Delhi, reminding Kashmiri journalists that nothing has changed for them, even during this Covid-19 pandemic? That their freedom extends only as far as the rope that is held by the authorities, and that it can be yanked at any time without notice? Given this, journalists in mainland India need to respect, applaud and support their counterparts in Kashmir for continuing to report under these conditions.

The cases against Zahra, Ashiq and Geelani have reminded us of the ugly reality of Kashmir, a land of unfreedoms ruled by people who claim they are committed to democracy. There have been statements of support from the Editors Guild of India, Committee to Protect Journalists, Network of Women in Media, India, and others. Whether these will shift Delhi's determination to keep the media in Kashmir on a tight leash remains to be seen.

Elsewhere, journalists have been in the news for another reason, getting infected by Covid-19 in the line of duty. When 53 out of 167 TV journalists in Mumbai tested positive for the virus, alarm bells rang in the journalist community. A pandemic cannot be reported working from home, or even from an office. It requires feet on the ground. And this is precisely what these journalists, many of them fairly young, and the cameramen from television channels were doing. But without proper advice on precautionary measures, directions that ought to have come from the seniors in their organisations, and the necessary equipment to stay safe, it was inevitable that some of them would pick up the infection.

What is tragic is the feeling amongst many of them that they lack support from their organisations. When one of the young journalists tested positive and informed her senior in the office, the message she got back was: “Take care and don’t step out for a few days,” according to this report in The Wire.

Since the Mumbai testing of media professionals, other municipalities and governments, such as Delhi, have also made these provisions. But that is not good enough. Journalists need to know before they step out at such times the risks they face, and be informed of the support that will be available to them.

Indian media organisations generally lack any established protocols when their reporters are sent out in situations that could be hazardous for them, be it war, internal conflict, riots, or pandemics. Journalists are expected to wing it with no assurance that if they are affected physically, or psychologically, their organisations will step in.

An experienced reporter with a magazine wrote recently on social media, "While there is nothing new in the callousness shown by media houses for the well being of their reporters, this time, the consequences are going to be deadly. Despite my initial restlessness at not being allowed to go out to report, I am just so glad that my organisation stopped us from putting our lives at risk. We continue to write stories from our homes without compromising the quality or our health. Because let's face it: our organisations don't provide us with any safety gear, whether it be a war zone or health emergency." She adds, "Every time I have gone into unsafe terrain, it is another reporter or civil society contact who has had my back."

This should not be the case. If there's anything salutary that can emerge from this crisis, as far as the media is concerned, it ought to be the institution of safety protocols for journalists in all media organisations.

Organisations like the BBC, for instance, have safety protocols for journalists in dangerous situations and there is also mandatory training before a person is sent out. In the current crisis, according to a BBC staffer in London (who asked not to be named), "The intranet site has a Coronavirus help site prominently displayed and we have a whole Health and Safety and Risk management team who are involved." There is also a doctor on call.

While people have been given the option of working from home, many producers have to go to the office because they need to use technical equipment. "The producers, previously not entitled to take taxis into work...have been allowed to use taxis (which the company is paying for) to and from work and they have also secured free parking around the building in central London so that those who want to can drive. This keeps us safe from the crowds on trains and the underground...this is one of the best things they have done."

None of this is rocket science and is the very minimum that media houses can do for their employees who literally risk their lives to step out to record the news as it happens.

In the current economic crisis, given the precarious financial state of most media houses, perhaps asking even for this much is wishful thinking. In my last column, I noted the salary cuts that some journalists were being asked to take and predicted that job losses would follow. This has already begun to happen, with a slew of layoffs even in bigger media houses. The longer the pandemic persists, the more chances of job losses. This is happening not just in India, but also in other countries around the world, including Britain as this report by the BBC points out.

Meanwhile, journalism as we have known it will suffer. If the journalists who are eager and keen to go out and report are not assured that their interests will be looked after, or even that their jobs are secure, why would they take a chance? The problem for most journalists today is that quitting what they have in hand is not an option as there are few alternatives available. Freelancing remains precarious. It is poorly paid, and payments are slow to come if and when they do.

So, in a post-Covid future, what do we envisage? On the one hand, the state has tasted the power to make the media fall in line, either through direct intimidation as experienced by Kashmiri journalists for decades, or by putting pressure on owners to fall in line as we have seen in these last years in India.

India has fallen two places in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, from 140 to 142 out of 180 countries. Perhaps, this means little to the ordinary reader or viewer. But it will become evident in the content they consume. As far as journalists are concerned, the post-Covid media scene is grim, with fewer jobs and shrinking spaces to report without fear.


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