Showing grisly visuals of Covid disaster is media’s job, projecting ‘positivity’ isn’t

Without such reporting and the personal risks journalists have taken, we would not have known half the horror story that is unfolding.

ByKalpana Sharma
Showing grisly visuals of Covid disaster is media’s job, projecting ‘positivity’ isn’t
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"I can't breathe". These words were immortalised by George Floyd, the African American who died after he was held down by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis, US in May 2020. Floyd's death after those nine minutes that Chauvin continued to press his knee on his neck is now history. It led to nationwide demonstrations and demands to end systemic racism in the US and change policing methods. On April 20, a court held Chauvin guilty of second and third degree murder.

In India, in this nightmarish fortnight since mid-April, hundreds of people have been saying these very words, "I can't breathe", as they lie outside hospitals, on stretchers, on the ground, in ambulances, in cars, and as their relatives desperately seek beds with oxygen. Others have died en route or at home, unable to reach a hospital or any medical help in time. Even in our worst nightmares, none of us could have imagined that a year after the Covid pandemic hit this country, we would be where we are today, a country that, as the Guardian put it, is "a living hell".

A great deal of credit goes to Indian journalists, especially those working for regional media outlets, for their persistence in recording the actual number of deaths due to Covid that are far in excess of those reported officially. Without that kind of incisive journalism, the government could have continued to delude Indians that things were really not that bad. Union health minister Harsh Vardhan continues to believe India is better off this year than last year. But the searing images of the cremation grounds and burial sites that we have seen these last days tell us the real story; they will continue to haunt us for many years to come.

Inevitably, because the epicentre of the current upsurge in Covid infections and fatalities is New Delhi, there has been more detailed coverage by the media of what is happening on the ground. It has also drawn the attention of the international media, much to the discomfort of the dispensation ruling this country that has wanted to project only the "positive" story from India.

Of course, supporters of the BJP and fawning followers of the prime minister continue to believe that all such reports, including those from outside India, are exaggerated, and are a ploy to undercut the image of India and its leader. They remain stubbornly blind to an essential part of a free, democratic country – a media that believes its right and its duty is to report the truth, however ugly it may be rather than amplify a "positive" or any other kind of narrative desired by the rulers.

Just as the exodus of migrant workers from India's cities last year could not be ignored by the media, including those who supported the government, this time too the evidence of death and disease is unavoidable. As a result, even the so-called "godi media" has now reluctantly begun to report some of the mayhem taking place around the country.

While the shortages of beds, oxygen, drugs and ambulances in our cities are being reported by mainstream media, there still remain huge gaps in coverage, particularly of rural India. The first few reports that are finally beginning to emerge, such as this one in Scroll and this in the BBC, suggest that India is sitting on a time bomb, that the problem of infections and deaths from Covid is far greater in this second wave than perhaps even the most dire predictions.

Reporting and images are the most significant aspects of the media at these times. Together they are able to convey realities that readers and viewers, currently locked up in their homes or localities, would not have been able to imagine.

But another side of the media is what is said editorially, the comment sections that analyse policy and performance of the government. These might not be the most read sections of newspapers, yet they perform an important function. For they are read by those who make policy and by readers looking for a context and an analysis of current events.

Here we see a stark difference between the comments carried by the international press and the Indian media. While there are critical voices in the Indian media by way of columnists who have long been known to be critics of prime minister Narendra Modi, the editorial stance of most newspapers remains nuanced and careful.

For instance, the Indian Express has been critical of this government's actions on a number of issues. Its editorial and opinion pages contain a mixture of pieces that oppose government policies and support them. But its unsigned edits are what reveal the stance of the paper. Here, even though there is criticism, it is interesting how the person who has concentrated power in his hands since 2014 and increasingly after re-election in 2019, namely Modi, is rarely named as responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves today.

On April 28, in a strong editorial, the Indian Express went as far as to state that "it took the case load to surge so completely out of control for the PM to pull himself away from the over-long election campaign”. But other than this reference, it blames the empowered committees set up by the government for their failure to meet and recommend action, the election commission for not limiting the campaigning for the state elections and the "Centre".

Other papers too have criticised the "government" or the "Centre" but almost never Modi or home minister Amit Shah by name. It is mystifying why that is so given that it has been apparent for several years now that nothing moves in the central government without the approval of these two men, that the prime minister's office has centralised power to such an extent that the different ministries cannot act on their own, and that the parliament also rubber stamps what is approved by this powerful duo.

Some columnists, however, have not hesitated, such as Ruchir Joshi in this trenchant piece in the Telegraph where he begins with these lines: "It’s best to state this simply: Narendra Modi needs to go. Amit Shah needs to go. Ajay Mohan Bisht aka Yogi Adityanath needs to go. The bunch of integrity-free incompetents Mr Modi has gathered around him as his ministers all need to go. In order for the country to launch the mammoth operation of recovery and repair needed for our survival, the departure of these people from positions of power needs to happen immediately — tomorrow is too late, yesterday would have been better."

The Telegraph has been, amongst English language newspapers, the strongest critic of the Modi regime. But regardless of the stance media houses might have taken in the past, surely it is more than evident that as compared to last year, when Modi personally took it upon himself to give out messages on the seriousness of the pandemic to the Indian public, this time around, not only has such messaging been meagre, ineffective and contradictory, but he has been absent during the most crucial period when the second wave was hitting its peak. Both he and Shah were campaigning for the Bengal election.

Given the way decisions are made in India, their absence at this time has proved costly, resulting in a crisis that has run away with itself. Hence not naming the people who should be held responsible contributes to the narrative that they are not really to blame, but that it is the "system". But these two are the system.

As for international coverage, the editorials have been scathing. Apart from this editorial in the Guardian, which clearly states that the buck stops with Modi, other international media platforms have also been critical. The Washington Post came down heavily on the Modi government over how it got Twitter to remove tweets that amplified the current crisis and wrote that "restricting the free flow of information doesn’t help public health; it only hurts”. An article in the Australian that held Modi responsible for what it called "a viral apocalypse" was countered by the Indian high commissioner there. And the New York Times has carried reports almost every day on the under-reporting of deaths and the chaos that prevails in Delhi and elsewhere.

Through this difficult time, it is easy to forget the brave journalists who have been out in the field, reporting, taking photographs that speak louder than many words, bringing out the pain, despair, kindness, heroism of ordinary people. As the Columbia Journalism Review notes, "Journalists in India aren’t just confronting a national health risk – the country’s Covid surge comes amid a period of deteriorating freedoms for the press, specifically."

Indian journalists have had to pay a price for reporting the truth, not just by way of threats from governments – with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath leading the charge against even routine reporting about shortages – but also by contracting the very disease they are writing about.

According to this crowdsourced list, at least 145 journalists have succumbed to Covid. Without their reporting, and the personal risks they took, we would not have known even half the horror story that is unfolding today.

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