‘We report what we see’: Why Dainik Bhaskar’s Covid coverage stands out

The Hindi newspaper has aggressively spotlighted the ground realities that governments tried to hide from the public.

‘We report what we see’: Why Dainik Bhaskar’s Covid coverage stands out
Shambhavi Thakur
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In the afternoon on April 10 this year, the editorial team of Divya Bhaskar in Ahmedabad gathered in the office to plan the next day’s edition. One news item caught the attention of the paper’s Gujarat editor, Devendra Bhatnagar. The state BJP president, CR Patil, had claimed that he would be giving away 5,000 remdesivir injections for free to Covid patients. When chief minister Vijay Rupani was questioned by reporters how his party’s leader had obtained a large stock of a drug that the public was struggling to buy even on the black market, he told them to ask Patil.

Bhatnagar found it baffling that Patil had procured such a large stock of a scarce drug and that Rupani seemed to be unaware about it. How were the people supposed to get an answer if not from the chief minister? The Bhaskar decided to publish Patil’s phone number so people could ask him directly. Thus was born the now famous front page.

A few days later the paper’s Bhopal edition got in on the act. “Government data on deaths is a lie, these burning pyres are telling the truth,” the newspaper declared in its top headline, accompanied by a drone photograph of burning funeral pyres at Bhadbhada Ghat, the city’s largest crematorium. It was as hard as any Indian media outlet had gone after the authorities for mishandling the Covid disaster. Not surprisingly, the paper drew a lot of praise.

It hasn’t let up since. As the second wave of the pandemic continues to devastate India, Bhaskar has stood out for its coverage, bringing out the tragic reality on the ground and aggressively questioning governments where they haven’t handled the situation properly.

“It's not that Bhaskar is doing such stories for the first time. We have reported on government wrongdoings earlier also. We have often exposed shortcomings of the administration, be it in Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat,” said Bhatnagar. “Right now our focus is Covid and we’re publishing Covid news on priority. This could be why the people are looking at our work differently, but Bhaskar has been doing such journalism since forever.”

“Our chairman, Ramesh Aggarwal, used to say, ‘See the way it is and write what you see.’ So, we write whatever the truth is,” he added. “Today, in this pandemic, people are dying and the government is trying to suppress the truth. The readers want the truth to be told. And if I hide the truth from our readers at such a time, I’d be betraying my profession. That’s why we are reporting openly. We don’t have an agenda and we don’t have any animosity towards or conflict with the government.”

In this vein, Bhatnagar explained the decision to publish the Gujarat BJP president’s phone number. “When we asked the chief minister about the BJP chief stocking 5,000 remdesivir injections, he said he didn’t know about it and that we must ask Patil. When we did, Patil said he got the injections from some friends. We wanted to know the names of his friends. He replied that whoever needed the injection could take it and those who didn’t want it shouldn't. That’s why we thought that the people of Gujarat who had been struggling to find the injections should ask where he got the injections from. This is why we made his number our headline.”

A seasoned Bhaskar journalist, however, provided a less heroic explanation for the newspaper’s aggressive coverage. “Our managing director says Bhaskar must always stand with the public opinion. We aren’t reporting against the government but in favour of the public. It may be that Bhaskar never proactively writes against the government, but this is a matter of public interest now. Bhaskar first carried reports about cremation grounds getting filled up, and then national and international media picked up the story.”

Another Bhaskar story that drew a lot of attention was from Uttar Pradesh, about people burying their Covid dead on the banks of the Ganga. The paper sent 30 reporters to document the newly dug graves on the banks along a 1,140-km stretch of the holy river in 27 districts. The story was soon picked up by other media outlets, Indian and international.

Ambrish Shukla was one of the 30 reporters who documented the graves. He told Newslaundry, "In Phaphamau, bodies were buried under the bridge on the Ganga earlier also but the number increased exponentially because of Covid. We went there and shared pictures in our office group. Our seniors must have decided that such reporting should be done from elsewhere in the state as well, so reporters were sent out to various places. From Phanphamau, we went to the Shringarpur ghat in Allahabad. There were corpses along a one-kilometre stretch. When our photographs and videos were published, people from other media organisations began to arrive at these places.”

Bhaskar has injected a new zeal in its digital team in Uttar Pradesh. Our newspaper is not published in Uttar Pradesh, and this is an attempt to establish it via the digital route,” said a Bhaskar journalist in Uttar Pradesh who spoke anonymously. “Om Gaur, our national editor, has been sent to UP, along with Surat editor Vijay Chauhan, Dainik Bhaskar Star editor Yogesh Pande and a veteran journalist from Punjab, Shyam Dwivedi. Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala aren’t doing any notable work. Bhaskar, in contrast, is reporting widely on the current state of affairs. This will help get us established in UP.”

Gaur, when asked what was driving his paper’s aggressive coverage, said, “Bhaskar has always reported aggressively. Some of our stories have gained more traction during the pandemic because it has turned into a political issue. There was pressure on newspapers and electronic media in Uttar Pradesh to not do such stories, so when Bhaskar published such stories they were noticed.”

So wasn’t Bhaskar pressured to give favourable coverage to the government? “See, there are many ways to pressure the media,” replied Gaur, who oversees the newspaper’s digital operations. “After we did the story about the administration burying dead bodies at the Ganga ghats, I received a call from a government representative. He said a retired bureaucrat, SP Singh, had tweeted our story and if it wasn’t ours they would file a case against him. I replied that if they had to file a case, they should file it against me because Bhaskar published the report. I also told him to check our report, it had all the data and evidence.”

Vijay Singh Chauhan, who works with Bhaskar in UP, stressed this point, “Our coverage is centred on issues relevant to the public. Today, people are dying due to Covid, there’s no oxygen available, deaths are being covered up. We are covering that,” he said.

Another Bhaskar journalist in UP who asked not to be named said, “In Uttar Pradesh, pick up any newspaper and you would think the government has published it. That is why Bhaskar's reporting stands out."

A Dainik Bhaskar journalist in Bhopal said, “Our coverage is sharper now than last year. That’s because the government has completely failed and it is necessary to write about it. It was Dainik Bhaskar that first reported about deaths due to the lack of oxygen in Bhopal. After the story was published, the government pressured us to withdraw it but we didn’t as it was grounded in facts. Similarly, when Bhaskar reported on the government shutting down testing labs, there was pressure to refute it, but we did not. We publish reports after checking them thoroughly.”

In Rajasthan, the paper’s coverage stood out “because corona is a global problem but other media outlets are not reporting on it aggressively like us”, said its state editor Mukesh Mathur. “We are reporting openly, be it a BJP state or a Congress one. Today, leftwing media and rightwing media are a thing but we don’t have any such association. We question those who are in power, not the opposition.”

He added, “In Rajasthan, we sent our reporters to cremation grounds and graveyards across 25 districts and showed that the state government was trying to hide the true number of deaths.”

The paper’s editors may claim that it has long stood with the public against the government, but that has not always been the case. Indeed, until its recent reporting on the pandemic, Bhaskar wasn’t known for openly criticising the establishment. A look at its coverage of the first wave of the pandemic in April-May 2020 makes this clear. The newspaper’s Delhi edition, which we looked at, lacked the speed and aggression in reportage that it’s showing now. Its editorials weren’t nearly as piercing as they are now either, even when discussing similar subjects. Overall, its coverage of the pandemic was not much different than in any other Hindi newspaper.

So, what changed?

“One of the reasons for the aggressive stance of Bhaskar is that in the last six months the number of ads given to them has come down significantly. There are two types of ads, one has information about government tenders, the other is for messaging and propaganda. The tender ads being given to Bhaskar have decreased significantly and they rarely get any display ads,” a former official in Madhya Pradesh’s public relations department claimed. “They are getting some display ads now, but tender ads are still not there.”

A serving public relations official refused to speak on record but said on the condition of anonymity, “Their ads have been cut down in the past six months but not stopped completely. There are anyway fewer display ads given the Covid situation, but yes, their tender ads have been reduced by 90 percent. It is a decision made high up, not at our level. Earlier, the paper would get ads worth about Rs 50 lakh a month.”

The official wouldn’t explain why the ads have been reduced. A senior Bhaskar executive admitted that they have received fewer ads since December last year but he too didn’t explain why.

The executive, however, denied that the paper’s coverage was driven by business interests. “We haven’t been pressured by any government. If you see our coverage you’ll find that we aren’t targeting any individual or party. Bhaskar is reporting from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand. We don’t care if it's a BJP state or a non-BJP state.”

As for why the newspaper’s coverage during the second Covid wave has been far more aggressive than during the first, the executive said, “What happened this time hasn’t happened ever. When things weren’t like this last year, how could we have reported as aggressively?”

A version of this report was originally published on Newslaundry Hindi.

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