Censoring coronavirus coverage: Increased attacks on journalists

Press freedom under greater threat during coronavirus pandemic

Politics

July 15, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Governments across the country, under pressure to keep the ‘bad news’ about the coronavirus pandemic out of public domain, have resorted to various tactics including assault and imprisonment, to control media coverage of the crisis (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

As in a few other countries, journalists reporting on coronavirus pandemic in India have been threatened, attacked & jailed by a nervous government.

Ravi Reddy, Hyderabad bureau chief of The Hindu, was on his way back home on March 23, when he was assaulted by the Begumpet police, for “violating curfew”, despite the fact that the government rules exempt journalists from the curfew. The police also reportedly resorted to a lathi-charge when other journalists began to gather at the spot and question the police.

Just the next day, in the capital New Delhi, Navin Kumar, a journalist with TV network Aaj Tak was assaulted by police while on his way to work. Kumar says the police stopped his car at a checkpoint, accusing him of violating the lockdown and even when he showed his press card, they continued beating him. The police only stopped when a crowd began to gather at the police barricade.

“There is a chilling effect of taking action against one journalist so that others don’t question too,” said Zubair Ahmed, a journalist based out of Andaman Islands. Ahmed was arrested in April for questioning the state’s move to quarantine people based on their call records on Twitter.

While most people see healthcare professionals and police as standing in the frontline of the battle against the pandemic, the work done by journalists has largely gone unnoticed, even though it is the journalists alone who have faced a double threat while being out to report on the pandemic as it gripped the entire nation. Not only have the journalists faced the threat of contracting the infection, but they have also faced assaults, threats and even jail time for simply doing their job honestly.

According a report prepared by New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), in the span of just over three and a half months, a total of 66 serious incidents have taken place where journalists covering the pandemic have been attacked or threatened by the police. And the cases are not limited to any particular city or state. Indeed, the report cites examples from all over the country.

According to the report titled Harassment and cases against journalists during Covid-19 (March 15- July 10, 2020), Uttar Pradesh saw the highest number of cases, nine, for booking a journalist followed by Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra and Telangana.

‘‘In some instances, journalists found support in their Unions and networks that took stand and put out statements against such attacks. For legal defence, while journalists with national and bigger media organisations find support from their editors and publishers, it is the vernacular and small-town journalists that get forgotten. Therefore, it is important that legal aid is provided to these journalists,’’ says Aditi Saxena, advocate with HRLN that prepared the report.

The attempts by the government to curb news about the pandemic and its spread began in earnest even before the infection had reached serious levels in India. As early as March, the Indian government asked the Supreme Court to pass an order that the media should be forbidden from releasing any information about the pandemic ‘cross-checking’ the position from the government. Mercifully, the top court did not cave in, which incidentally has become its default mode of late while dealing with the government and its misdeeds. The court rejected the plea, saying “We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media [to] refer to and publish the official version about the developments.”

However, to make sure that the media toed its line, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly asked owners and editors of select news organisations to publish “positive stories” about the pandemic. The Caravan magazine reported that most of them followed through, while others exhibited restraint in  questioning the government.

In many ways, the government’s aborted attempt to gag the press right from the beginning of the pandemic seemed unnecessary. Regulating the media now is not a difficult task for Indian government. With most of the media singing the tunes of the ruling party, the incidents of attacks against journalists during Covid-19 were not many. However, the remaining few who dared to speak against the mismanagement of the government during the pandemic were arrested, booked and even threatened for doing their jobs.

According to another report by Committee for Protection of Journalists, an international press body, in India at least five journalists were subject to criminal investigations, one assaulted and property of another journalist destroyed in the period April 5-June 11, 2020.

In eastern megapolis of Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, police opened investigations against Anirban Chattopadhyay, the then editor of Anandabazar Patrika, a leading Bengali daily, after a complaint had been filed by the state’s ministry of information and broadcasting, alleging that the newspaper had published ‘unauthorised and unidentified information with regard to the corona-related death toll figures as well as total Corona-affected cases. The state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee also criticised the daily in a press conference, saying the paper “created panic, spread apprehensions and provoked people” with its coverage of government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and Cyclone Amphan, which hit the city on May 20.

In another case, recorded on May 22 in the southern state of Telangana, municipal authorities demolished the under-construction house of journalist Shanigarapu Parameshwar. The journalist, a reporter for Telugu news channel V6 News, alleged that the demolition of his house was in retaliation for his critical reporting on local lawmaker Mahareddy Bhupal Reddy. Parameshwar said he had reported on May 7 that Reddy had celebrated his 60th birthday with over 500 supporters in violation of Covid-19 lockdown rules.

As the pandemic races ahead in India, which already has the third highest number of infections, governments, federal and state, would be under increasing pressure to keep the bad news about Covid-19 casualties and infections out of the media. In such a scenario, journalists, at least the free-minded ones, ought to pull up their socks and be prepared for the long haul to guard freedom of the press.

‘‘The situation has not improved even one bit since the beginning of pandemic till date for journalists. Lockdown has been taken as an excuse to put hundreds of journalists out of jobs. Incidents of journalists’ harassment are reported almost every second day, let alone those that go unnoticed. Thirdly, even after months of pandemic journalists and photographers on the ground reporting are not provided with personal protection kits,’’ concludes Saxena of HRLN.

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