The People’s Union for Civil Liberties has released a report on how the news media has been functioning in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic and on the curb of information during these times. This report titled “The Double Siege: News Media in the Time of COVID-19” is the second report in the series of ‘Lockdown on Civil Liberties’ reports being released by PUCL.
The report is titled so as it perceives a double threat to freedom of press: from without by the State and its thriving band of storm troopers and from within by the owners of private media. The report has been authored by Geeta Seshu with assistance from Kabi, Mihir Desai, Sandhya Gokhale, Lara Jesani, Chayanika Shah, Venkatesh Narayanan and other members of PUCL (Maharashtra).
The report calls the double assault on news media as being worse than the dark days of National Emergency of 1975-77. The government, throughout the lockdown, imparted information on a ‘need to know’ basis with the government itself deciding the contours of “need”. It further states that Prime time on television channels has replaced serious debate with rabid and dangerously inflammatory talk shows, ratcheting up of public opinion to divert and disguise serious issues.
It points towards how the news media failed to scrutinize and debate upon pertinent incidents of national importance such as environmental regulations; the PM-CARES Fund; the Galwan crisis; the domicile law in Kashmir; the prolonged economic crisis; the crisis of neglect in public health care; the questionable awarding of contracts to pharma companies for COVID-19 related drugs; the foisting of cases against victims and rights activists in connection with the Delhi violence and the precarious condition of prisoners in jails, including those accused in the Bhima Koregaon cases.
There has also been a serious impediment to journalistic work in the past few years as since 2014, there have been more than 200 serious attacks on journalists in India, targeted for their investigative work and journalists have been killed, with culprits getting away with near-total impunity.
What has further weakened news media is the near complete disregard for attacks on journalists, journalists suffering pay cuts and job losses during the pandemic as well as shutting down of news paper editions as circulation was affected due to the pandemic. On the other hands, TV news media has been criticised for indulging in co-option and self-censorship while submitting to the ruling party’s agenda; also, for its superficial coverage of gender, caste atrocities, the minorities, farmers.
Control on information
The control over information continued in several forms throughout the lockdown period, aided by the combination of judicial pronouncements, regulatory notifications and lack of access to official information.
Reportedly, a few hours before announcing the nation-wide lockdown, the Prime Minister approached around twenty select media owners to publish positive articles about the pandemic. The lack of information forced group of health reporters in India to issue ten questions to the government on issues ranging from community transmission, testing, health care access, safety equipment and health insurance for health workers, which remained unaddressed.
The government was so much in control of information that it blamed the migrant crisis on fake news and tried to shrug off its responsibility to manage the crisis. So much so that it even urged the Supreme Court to direct the media to publish nothing about the pandemic unless it was cleared by the Government first. While the apex court did not directly endorse the government’s suggestion of pre-censorship and stated that it did not want to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, it still directed the media ‘to refer and publish the official version about the developments’. The court even accepted the submission that the migrant crisis “was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months”.
This was followed by various state governments issuing notifications to curb fake news such as Delhi, Assam, Haryana, Sikkim, Maharashtra. While some tightened the noose around misleading information, others formed committees to keep a tab on this menace.
Effect on Right to information
It was not just that information was being controlled by the government to disseminate via news media but even generally, people’s right to information was crippled due to non-funtctioning Information Commissions. A report from the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) found that 21 Commissions, out of a total of 29, were not holding any hearings as of May 15, 2020 and only 7 of the 29 Information Commissions made provision for taking up urgent matters.
Furthermore, the websites of 11 Commissions out of 29, had no information/notification about the functioning of the Information Commissions during lockdown.
Crackdown on media in lockdown
The report states that since March 25, 2020, police and the authorities have questioned, filed cases or arrested more than 50 journalists in India for reports on the sub-standard quality of personal protective equipment (PPE), quarantine conditions and on the plight of migrant workers and the lack of rations for them. The largest number of attacks on the media persons was reported from Uttar Pradesh (11), followed by Jammu & Kashmir (6), Himachal Pradesh (5) and so on.
One of the major instances, that appear arbitrary and vague was the arrest of a journalist in Andaman Nicobar islands who questioned the government on why families are placed under home quarantine for speaking over phone with Covid patients. He was arrested on various charges under the IPC such as circulating a rumour, disobedience of public servant’s order.
On May 7, Dhaval Patel, the editor of a news portal ‘Face of the Nation’ was charged with sedition for writing that the number of Covid-19 cases was on the increase in Gujarat and the state’s lack of leadership was noticed in Delhi.
On April 1, an FIR was lodged against The Wire and one of its founding editors, Siddharth Varadarajan, for allegedly posting false news about the participation of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in a Ram Navami celebration in the midst of a nation-wide lockdown.
On June 13, an FIR was lodged against Supriya Sharma, the Executive Editor of Scroll.in for a report titled ‘In Varanasi village adopted by Prime Minister Modi, people went hungry during the lockdown’.
On March 26, Hindi-language daily Jansandesh Times was sent a legal notice by the district administration for reporting that a tribe in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh didn’t have enough to eat due to the sudden announcement and that children were eating grass.
On April 30, Manish Pandey, a journalist of Hindi news channel News1 India, was interrogated by the Special Task Force of Uttar Pradesh police for his report on the poor quality of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits supplied to eight hospitals and medical colleges in the state.
Kashmir: the extreme crackdown
Jammu Kashmir has virtually been on a complete lockdown since August 5 2019 after Article 370 was abrogated and the special status of the state was revoked. A complete internet shutdown was followed by restriction to 2G speed which fractured functioning of local news media and further, journalists were also being arrested while doing their jobs.
On April 18, photojournalist Masrat Zahra was arrested by the Cyber Police Station (Kashmir Zone), under Section 13 of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code for uploading allegedly “anti-national” posts with the criminal intention to induce the youth and promote offences against public tranquility.
On April 21, The Hindu correspondent in Srinagar, Peerzada Ashiq, was questioned by the Cyber Police in Srinagar for allegedly giving out fake news in a report “Kin allowed to exhume bodies of militants in Baramulla”.
On April 22, journalist Gowher Geelani was booked by the Cyber police, Srinagar, for allegedly ‘indulging in unlawful activities’ through his posts and writings on social media, without specifically pointing towards any particular post.
Environmental campaigns silenced
In June 2020, three environmental campaign sites powered by youth – letindiabreathe.in, fridaysforfuture.in and thereisnoearthb.com were blocked while they were campaigning against the Environmental Impact Assessment Draft of 2020. On July 8, 2020, Delhi police issued a notice to the fridaysforfuture.in site under UAPA, for sending ‘multiple emails’ to the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar on the draft EIA. After a furore, the notice under UAPA was dropped.
Control over advertising
The report states that Government policy on advertising is the least publicly scrutinized of its regulatory mechanisms. The Times of India, The Hindu and The Telegraph were allegedly denied government advertisements in 2019, before the general election, for publishing critical reports on the Rafale deal.
Further, the pandemic exposed the Indian media’s dependence on government advertising. According to reports from industry bodies, the government owed media companies upto Rs 1800 Crores in advertising. The policy for print media, announced on July 23,2020 states that the government would avoid advertising in companies that are deemed anti-national.
The TV news media is being increasingly ciriticised for polarized and partisan manner of reporting while neglecting important issues affecting the free dissemination of fair, accurate and verified news to the public.
Since March, the news media was dominated by allegations that the Tabligi Jamaat in Delhi had contributed to the spread of the pandemic. Businessline newspaper conducted a study which found that 11,074 stories published from 271 media sources with the term ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ between March 20 to April 27. Around 1.5-10 per cent of the stories had words with negative connotations such as ‘violating’, ‘crime’, ‘spitting’, ‘terrorist’, and ‘jihad’. These stories fed into an epidemic of Islamophobic fake news and hate speech.
Further, the reporting of the Palghar lynching incident was also deeply polarized. The news media tried to blame Muslims for the attack on Sadhus but when it was clear from the list of accused that that was not the case, the blame was shifted to Christians missionaries or even a leftist link was put forth.
Pay cuts, job cuts
Many big media houses resorted to heavy pay cuts and lay offs amidst the pandemic even as journalists risked their lives in poor PPEs and working on field, in a bid to deliver news. News media industry was rife with news of unilateral wage cuts, illegal unpaid furloughs abrupt terminations and “resignations” and so on.
No major steps were taken to help these journalists who abruptly lost their jobs as bodies like Press Council of India chose to selectively speak against only The Hindu; Indian Newspaper Society and the News Broadcasters Association claimed major economic losses and The Editors Guild of India maintained a radio silence on the whole issue.
The report states that the crisis of the media is a crisis for the democratic right to freedom of expression and information and there is a crucial need for an informed and participative public to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath.
“We have already experienced a dangerously shrinking space for dissent. Self-censorship is slowly becoming the new normal. In this context, every effort to speak truth to power must be assiduously nurtured and protected,” concludes the report.
The complete report may be read here.