‘If this is a war, just give us the armour’: Why journalists in Maharashtra are protesting

Their demands are simple: to be vaccinated on a priority basis and to be permitted to use public transport.

ByTanishka Sodhi
‘If this is a war,  just give us the armour’: Why journalists in Maharashtra are protesting
Shambhavi Thakur
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On Tuesday, 90 journalists in Maharashtra from news organisations across platforms and languages held an urgent Zoom meeting.

Their discussion spanned their two main demands from chief minister Uddhav Thackeray: to get them vaccinated on a priority basis, and to be allowed to use public transport.

“If this is a war, and we are in a battlefield, just give us the armour,” said journalist Smruti Koppikar.

Koppikar’s comment summed up the sentiment of journalists across Maharashtra, who have been reporting during the pandemic for over a year, but without the additional protection of being declared frontline workers. According to journalist union Marathi Patrakar Parishad, around 126 journalists have died of Covid in the state in the last eight months.

In Mumbai, Covid deaths include Vivek Bendre from the Hindu, Sadanand Shinde from Navakal, Sumit Ghoshal from Business India, Shashi Baliga, Sabaji Palkar from ANI, Sanjay Rokde from NDTV, and Jayaram Sawant from Daily Sagar.

The central government has not declared journalists as frontline workers, despite efforts from journalist bodies. In fact, on April 4, the Modi government wrote to all states and union territories, asking them not to permit any fresh registrations of healthcare workers or frontline workers.

But over the past couple of weeks, at least 12 states have either declared journalists as frontline workers or allowed them to get vaccination on a priority basis.

But not Maharashtra, despite being one of the states hardest hit by Covid. Cabinet ministers like Dilip Patil, Balasaheb Thorat, Chhagan Bhujbal, and Dhananjay Munde have written to Thackeray asking that journalists be designated as frontline workers. So have opposition leaders like Devendra Fadnavis.

So far, chief minister Thackeray hasn’t said a word.

Some journalists suspect that the state government is dragging its feet because there are financial strings attached to being a frontline worker, such as insurance and other monetary benefits. Hence, their immediate demands are simple: vaccination and access to public transport. The rest can come later.

Following Tuesday’s Zoom meeting, alongside efforts from senior journalists and cabinet ministers, many attendees hoped their issues would be addressed during a state cabinet meeting held on Wednesday.

Nothing happened. According to PTI, health minister Rajesh Tope on Wednesday said there weren’t sufficient doses of vaccines, and that the proposal of vaccinating journalists under the frontline category could be discussed after the state gets vials in a large quantity.

As a result, journalists told Newslaundry that they plan to step up their agitation, from refusing to report on government stories for a day to gathering for a physical protest. None of these plans have been finalised, but the signal is clear: enough is enough.

Journalist Jatin Desai, who has been at the helm of organising the agitation, said their protest would intensify in the coming week to get the government to listen. On their demands not being discussed at Wednesday’s meeting, he said, “It is shocking. We never expected the Maharashtra government to be so insensitive.”

Desai added, “Maharashtra otherwise claims it is the most progressive state in the country. It’s very difficult to understand why Maharashtra is not recognising journalists as frontline workers. So many journalists have died in the state.”

During the first wave of the pandemic last year, journalists were allowed to travel in local trains. This has been stopped during the second wave, Desai said.

“Journalists stay in distant places and can’t come to town without taking local trains,” he pointed out. “If a journalist stays in Virar and wants to come to town to report, they have to spend at least Rs 1,500 one-way. And it takes a lot of time. If the government recognises journalists as frontline workers, vaccination automatically follows.”

Categorising journalists

But the journalists’ demands of May 2021 go all the way back to last March, when discussions took place on who would be counted as essential and emergency workers. During the lockdown in the state, accredited journalists were counted as essential workers and allowed to use local trains, and this eventually opened up to all journalists.

In April 2021, not even accredited journalists made the cut.

“The whole issue of how to categorise journalists never really got addressed which, in hindsight, was a huge blunder,” said independent journalist Smruti Koppikar. “Newspapers might have stopped printing but news did not stop. We were all working, and doing this at a great risk without the government, state or central, recognising us as risk takers.”

Journalists kept reporting, Koppikar said, from places that “any sane, rational Indian” would not go to and are, in fact, advised not to go to by the government, such as hospitals and Covid cluster zones.

“We go to places that people are running away from. We know that it is our job,” she said. “But now, there is an undeniably clear and present threat to journalists. We aren’t making this up or being crybabies. The threat has been proven. Hundreds of journalists have perished from Covid.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists, Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, TV Journalist Association, and Mumbai Press Club are among the bodies that have appealed to Thackeray to recognise journalists as frontline workers. Gurbir Singh, chairman of the Mumbai Press Club, told Newslaundry that they had received a number of calls from their 3,000 members, who were worried about vaccination and travel constraints.

Journalists also asked why they were not part of those who were vaccinated on priority in the state, alongside healthcare workers and frontline workers such as police personnel.

“Does the virus wait for a label or category to strike? If there is a doctor and a journalist in a hospital because they have to work, is the virus going to see who is labeled as a frontline worker?” Koppikar asked. “We’re not trying to jump the queue, or get a special status. We are saying that we are doing a job that puts us in risk zones, that takes us to hazardous places. If this is a war against the virus and we are part of that war, where we have to go and cover that war, then provide us the armour you are providing to all your other people who are involved in the war.”

She added that given Maharashtra has a high number of Covid cases, there is “no plausible or implausible, direct or indirect, understandable or non-understandable reason for the Maharashtra government to still dither on this decision.”

Young reporters on the field

While several senior journalists spoke up at the Zoom meeting, it was mostly in solidarity with younger reporters who are the most vulnerable, since they’re on the ground. Adding to their concerns is that Maharashtra has stopped vaccinating those in the 18-44 age groups due to a shortage of vaccines.

“My biggest fear is that I don’t want my parents to be infected in any way because of me,” said Sohit Mishra, 27, a correspondent with NDTV in Mumbai. “People say it is up to us and we can stay home. But it doesn’t work that way. This is our job, our responsibility.”

Mishra has been reporting from rural Maharashtra, covering over 1,200 km as part of his work. “We take all the risks,” he said. “We go to hospitals, cemeteries, speak to people who could be Covid positive. What exactly are we demanding? That, if it is possible, give us the vaccine. If it is possible, say that we are frontline workers.”

Mishra tested positive for Covid in March, when he had been reporting on Mumbai cop Sachin Vaze and the state budget session. He returned to reporting once he was cleared to do so and got his first jab of the vaccine earlier this week.

“You want us to cover the cabinet, come for press conferences, but you won’t declare us as frontline workers? If other states can, why can’t you?” he asked. “Give us a reason why you’re not doing it.”

Reporters who don’t live alone also need to quarantine themselves after their reporting as a precautionary measure, and this time in solitude brings up feelings of guilt and fear.

Shraddha Agarwal, 24, a journalist with the People’s Archive of Rural India, said she isolated herself in her room for a week after meeting potentially Covid-positive patients for a story in Palgarh.

“You are in a situation where you are very likely to catch the virus,” she said. “There’s also an extreme sense of guilt when you go out to report because if you get it, it’s fine, but what if you give it to somebody that you know? You’re in a moral dilemma, because you end up being a sort of mediator for the virus. It’s so scary.”

And yet, Agarwal said, journalists take these chances every day.

“Journalists are not only risking their own lives, but also of the people who are living with them and helping them with the story,” she said. “Journalists not being prioritised for the vaccine is extremely ridiculous because the stories we are doing are essentially for the people.”

Urvashi Khona, a 32-year-old journalist in Mumbai, said she lives in fear that she’ll contract Covid and pass it on to senior members of her household. “This is an everyday fear,” she said. “If anything happens, it will be I who will be bringing Covid in the house, because I’m the only one stepping out.”

Young journalists on the ground are also trying to adapt to the pandemic: shooting and interviewing from a distance, attaching rods to the boom, sanitising excessively. Yet, it isn’t enough, said Khona, who tested positive for Covid two months ago. She added that there has been no response from Thackeray’s offices to their repeated demands.

“They’ve left us at the mercy of God,” she said. “People have been trolling us and saying that we are asking for something special as journalists. But no, we are not asking anyone else to get deprived so that we get doses. Have a proper roadmap and be considerate.”

Purva Chitnis, a reporter with NDTV, said she got Covid in March this year. Her parents, who live with her, got it too.

“But if we are risking our lives and our family lives, shouldn’t the government consider us and at least prioritise our vaccination?” she asked.

Journalist Nikhil Wagle said their demands might be sanctioned once the state government procures more vaccines around May 22. If not, he said, their agitation will intensify.

“I am here to support my young colleagues,” he said, “who are going in the field...and putting their lives in danger.”

The struggle is harder in rural areas and for freelance and independent journalists. Ravindra Ambekar, the founder of Max Maharashtra, said that in rural areas, the local administrations often do not allow journalists to move around and report. “Many district officers have said in circulars that online media is not allowed for official meetings,” he added. “If the government accepts these demands, journalists can work freely.”

He pointed out that this isn’t an “unfair demand”, to ask that journalists in the field be vaccinated on a priority basis. “It is something the government can fulfill.”

A set of questions have been emailed to the chief minister’s office about the journalists’ demands and why they haven't been met. This story will be updated if there is a response.

Also Read : Dying on duty: Where's the aid Uddhav Thackeray promised to journalists?
Also Read : ‘Who will write about us if we fall sick?’: The vulnerability of journalists in the time of Covid-19
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