New Delhi: How many hospital beds, ventilators and personal protection equipment (PPE) are available? How many Coronavirus testing kits? How many tests? How many patients on ventilators or are critically ill? How many virus hotspots? Are we in stage three of transmission? How many healthcare professionals infected?
These are some of the routine questions asked of health authorities in democracies worldwide at daily briefings, as the Covid-19 pandemic grows. In the world’s largest democracy--which reported 1,860 cases, doubling every four days, with 53 dead on 3 April 2020--these are questions the government evades or provides inadequate clarity, according to reporters and editors.
Within 24 hours of a 31 March 2020 Supreme Court order, on government request that the media carry the official version of Coronavirus developments, many journalists were shut out of daily briefings, and the police in Uttar Pradesh filed a case against a website for reporting the truth. A week before the Supreme Court order, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had urged media owners and editors to carry “positive news” about the pandemic.
“They (the government) are making sure that reporters who ask questions are not being given a platform,” said a health reporter, requesting anonymity, shut out since 2 April 2020 from health ministry briefings, which are now restricted to journalists accredited with the government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB).
“In a democracy, cracking down on a pandemic requires the active support of a free press and must not include a crackdown on it,” said a statement released on 2 April 2020 by PEN Delhi, a branch of PEN International, a global collective of writers. “This is essential because fighting a pandemic requires a free media not just to inform the people likely to be affected by it but also to act as a watchdog for them, ever more important in a time of crisis.” ‘An Orwellian Setting’ The message that daily 4 pm briefings at Delhi government-run New Media Centre would be restricted was sent to journalists on an official PIB Whatsapp group. Journalists left out--many of whom have asked the government difficult questions about preparedness, planning and equipment contracts--must watch the press conference on the PIB website and post questions on another PIB Whatsapp group. A spokesperson is supposed to read questions on behalf of the missing reporters. Before the restriction, those who could not attend the briefing posted messages on the official Whatsapp group, but on the day the new arrangement began, of more than 15 questions asked, only two were answered, said a reporter who was present. The current restriction is a climbdown from a 1 April order limiting daily health ministry briefings to state-owned Doordarshan (DD) News and Asian News International (ANI), a news agency viewed as favouring Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. By afternoon that day, the PIB climbed down and said it would also allow accredited health reporters. Shortly after the 1 April press conference, Vidya Krishnan, a health and science reporter--who has covered the crisis for Indian and international media (here and here)--tweeted: “There is a media gag in place, doctors have been threatened to not speak out against lack of PPE kits, & the health ministry says we have no local transmission (w/o scaling up testing). Genuinely struggling to understand how we can continue reporting in this Orwellian setting”.
“If somehow journalists manage to get the truth out, the ruling party unleashes its trolls on science reporters,” Krishnan said in a series of tweets. “What's happening in India is extremely disturbing. Having said that, we'll continue doing our jobs because the health workers are out there doing theirs.”
Krishnan’s views were widely echoed by other health writers, some of whom have broken a series of stories that revealed government inaction or delays on industry pleas to notify PPE manufacturing standards, relaxation of a ban on PPE exports, how a company from Modi’s home state got a contract to make testing kits, export of medical equipment to Serbia despite a shortage and how India lost time in tackling the virus.
“Will India's robust news media loudly question the government's move to cut off questions at the daily #Covid19 press briefing?” Supriya Sharma, Executive Editor of the Scroll, tweeted on 1 April. “Reporters who attended today's briefing were told *explicitly* that officials will only take questions from DD and ANI.” Alone In The Democratic World Though “creating panic” was already a criminal offence under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, this could be bolstered with “appropriate direction from the top court”, the government told the Supreme Court, to “protect the country from any potential and inevitable consequence resulting from a false alarm having the potential of creating panic in a section of the society”.
Accepting a government contention that “fake and inaccurate reporting” had caused “panic in the society (sic)” and driven hundreds of thousands of urban migrants to flee for home on foot--with up to 22 dying on long journeys--the Supreme court said on 31 March 2020: “The court is pleased to issue a direction that no electronic/print media/ web portal or social media shall print/ publish or telecast anything without first ascertaining the true factual position from the separate mechanism provided by the Central government.”
The next day, Ajay Bhalla, an officer at the Ministry of Home Affairs, issued a notification directing chief secretaries of all states and union territories to create a web-portal where “people can verify facts and unverified news promptly”.
The Editors Guild of India on 2 April 2020 said it was “deeply perturbed” over the government statement to the Supreme Court and found the court’s advice “gratuitous and unnecessary”.
“Blaming the media at this juncture can only undermine the current work being done by it under trying circumstances,” said the Guild. “Such charges can also obstruct in the (sic) process of dissemination of news during an unprecedented crisis facing the country. No democracy anywhere in the world is fighting the pandemic by gagging its media.”
US President Donald Trump, who has a fractious relationship with that country’s media, nevertheless holds daily press conferences on the Coronavirus pandemic, as do the prime ministers or health ministers of the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada. The Indian prime minister, health minister or even the health secretary--the country’s top health bureaucrat--do not take media questions.
The daily 4 pm briefings are conducted by Luv Agarwal, a joint secretary, a middle-rung, health-ministry bureaucrat.
Independent journalist Cheena Kapoor said she had attended a digital press conference called by the World Health Organisation (WHO) sometime in March, and “the difference is stark.”
“The presser called by WHO was attended, physically and digitally, by many journalists across the world, so obviously there are a lot of questions,” said Kapoor. “There was a lot of active interaction with members in the audience. There was a lot more transparency and all my doubts were cleared by their answers to the others.” While the WHO has been largely transparent, it has been accused of going soft on China, where the pandemic originated, and in one interview, a spokesperson refused to answer questions on Taiwan’s handling of the crisis or even take the name of the country that China regards as a “renegade province”.
Kapoor said journalists covering the pandemic were stonewalled even before the Supreme Court order. “The health ministry was not providing data on the rise in the number of patients, or the number of deaths,” said Kapoor. “We had to rely on data from John Hopkins University (in the US). “If the government doesn’t answer any questions, then there is no point in any conference–digital or any other.” Apart from starving beat reporters of information, the government strategy appears to be pressuring their editors and owners and indicating that it will use the police to build that pressure. Pressure From The Top That the government was attempting to tailor coverage of the pandemic was first evident on 24 March 2020 when select editors and owners attended a virtual meeting with the Prime Minister, who asked them to publish “positive stories”. Modi told more than 20 print media editors and owners that it was “imperative to keep the fighting spirit of the people up,” according to his official website. He “emphasized that it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumour mongering. Citizens need to be assured that the government is committed to countering the impact of COVID-19”.
“Almost all of them appeared enamoured by what some described as an important ‘gesture’ from Modi, of considering their opinions, the Caravan reported on 31 March 2020.
The Indian media have traditionally had a contentious relationship with the State, and governments preceding this one have misused the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to harass journalists criticizing them, but the pressure has gradually grown since Modi took office in 2014.
In 2019, India ranked 140 of 180 countries in an annual Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a global media watchdog, falling seven places over three years. In 2016, it ranked 133. Among the laws used against journalists in recent years have been sedition and criminal defamation. The latest such move came on 1 April 2020 when the police in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), filed cases against The Wire, a website, for allegedly printing fake news and charging it with violations of IPC section 188--”disobedience of an order issued by a public servant”---and 505 (2), “statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes”.
“The Wire editor on his blog, with the aim to spread rumours and hostility among the public, publicised the following message: ‘On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event [a meeting of an orthodox Muslim sect in New Delhi, now reconised as having widely spread the virus] was held, (UP Chief Minister) Yogi Adityanath insisted that a large fair planned for Ayodhya on the occasion of Ram Navami from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual while Acharya Paramhans said that Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus,” the complaint filed by Faizabad resident Nitish Kumar Shrivastava read.
“A bare perusal of the FIR shows that the offences invoked are not even remotely made out and that it is aimed at stifling legitimate expression and factual information,” said a 1 April statement from The Wire’s founding editors. “The UP police seems to think its job is to go after those who criticise the CM. The registration of an FIR is a blatant attack on the freedom of the press.”
In June 2019, the Supreme Court ordered Adityanath’s government to release a journalist illegally arrested for a tweet which allegedly portrayed a woman who claimed to be Adityanath’s lover. The right to liberty is “a fundamental right and non-negotiable”, the court had said. “What the FIR says we have stated,” said The Wire’s statement. “That Chief Minister Adityanath attended a public religious event in Ayodhya on March 25 after the Prime Minister had announced a national lockdown to deal with the coronavirus challenge – is a matter of record.”
Colin Gonsalves, a Supreme Court lawyer, said the use of FIRs to “harass and intimidate” journalists was not uncommon. “The time has come now for us to actually prosecute the person making the FIRs and prosecute the policemen who entertain these cases,” said Gonsalves. “Filing of false cases is also a crime.” “If a journalist writes an article narrating how the chief minister of a state is breaking the law, by not adhering to a government directive for social distancing and the lock down, how is that a crime?” said Gonsalves. “There is no crime, so how can a FIR be registered? FIR registration means there is a cognizable offence [where a police officer can make arrests or investigate without a court’s permission] deemed to have been committed.” Referring to the sections used in the FIR, Gonsalves said: “188 does not apply to The Wire. In fact, it applies to Yogi Adityanath for disobeying the order of a lockdown. Even section 505 (2) does not apply. This is applicable only if two classes or communities make adverse statements creating ill-will. Here, The Wire is just one party.” “The Wire is simply stating the facts,” said Gonsalves. “That is not a crime.” (Ritika Jain is a freelance reporter based in New Delhi.)