Backstory: Amidst the Death Dance of the Pandemic, a Ceaseless Pursuit To Hobble the Media

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Tragic news of journalists succumbing to the virus pour in and it is impossible to steel oneself against the avalanche of grief. List after list, bearing names and faces emerge, testifying to the fact that India now accounts for the third-largest number of such deaths the world over (‘India Third in Journalists’ Deaths Due to COVID-19 Globally, Finds Media Rights Body’,  April 29). Every demise of this kind constitutes a loss of words and images; represents a silence, an erasure, a blank space in the public conversation. As the country tries to make sense of what it is living through, the loss of the real-time eyewitness, the documenter, the decoder from the frontline, is incalculable.

Several state governments have now declared journalists as “covid warriors” (‘COVID-19: Many States Declare Journalists ‘Frontline Workers’, to Vaccinate Them on Priority’, May 3). The Bengal chief minister made this announcement in her victory speech and her counterparts in other states have swiftly followed. The trend is of course welcome because it means some important, possibly life-saving, concessions would be made for this category of workers, including priority in vaccinations – a demand voiced by the Editors Guild.

What would however be most helpful to journalists negotiating a difficult phase is public recognition that they are not just essential frontline workers but essential workers for India’s democratic functioning. Spare them the repression they have faced in almost every state. Tiny ones like Manipur have deployed large hammers, even as the Central government stands by with manacles of all sizes. Many of the chief ministers now declaring journalists as frontline workers have records that are far from reassuring. Even the heroine of the day, Mamata Banerjee, presided over the arrest of a professor for merely forwarding a cartoon on her in 2012, during her first stint as chief minister.

In fact, the year of the pandemic has seen a ceaseless quest to hobble the media in every way. The Wire analysis, ‘Attacked, Arrested, Left Without Recourse: How 2020 Was for India’s Journalists’ (December 26, 2020) cited the Rights and Risks Analysis Group report which revealed that in just the first four months of the lockdown, 55 journalists faced arrests, FIRs, summons or show-cause notices. Media critic Sevanti Ninan has pointed out that during the pandemic, journalists have faced no less than 14 Sections of the IPC and Sections of the IT Act (including the one that was struck down), the DMA, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Motor Vehicles Act and provisions of Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The pandemic year was bookended by two serious attempts made by the powerful to asphyxiate the media. In 2020, the Centre dispatched Tushar Mehta, its voluble, if completely tone deaf, solicitor general, to demand that the media desist from reporting on the pandemic “without first ascertaining the true factual position from the … Central government.” Then chief justice of India S.A. Bobde and Justice L. Nageswara Rao, while agreeing with Mehta that “the migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news…”, mercifully stopped short of sanctioning the prior censorship he had demanded (‘Coronavirus v. Free Speech: Modi Government Opens New Battlefront in Supreme Court’, April 1).

Migrants walk on the Delhi-Noida road during a dust storm on May 14, 2020. Photo: PTI/Vijay Verma

In 2021, we saw something of a re-run of this template with the Election Commission, already chafing at the strong and valid rebuke that came its way from the Madras high court, pleading before the Supreme Court that the media be restrained from reporting on what judges observe during court proceedings.

The good news here is that the Supreme Court not only brought the gavel down on the suggestion, it made two further observations: One, that the court is a “public place” and that the media function as an extension of the open court; two, that “real-time reportage of court proceedings, including the oral exchanges in courtrooms between judges and lawyers, is part of the right to freedom of speech”. These observations have come as an unexpected gift to the Indian media at a time when they are the eyes and ears of the public amidst death and loss.

Last year, we saw some excellent coverage – including from corporate television channels – on migrant distress (one of the reasons for Tushar Mehta’s histrionics in the apex court). This time, there has been incisive and searing coverage of how the pandemic is eating into the vitals of rural India. I would recommend particularly the excellent ground reports recently put out by India Today: ‘Second Covid wave explodes in rural India: Ground reports from Jharkhand, UP’.

The chalta hain, jaane do (adjust and carry on) attitude, that has often been perceived as among the endearing qualities of the country, with jokes and films made on them, has actually brought the country to its knees. If the 2.3 lakh COVID-19 deaths don’t serve as a wake-up call, what will? It is in response to this catastrophe of oceanic proportions that The Wire in an editorial called for a “formal judicial commission of inquiry with at least three sitting Supreme Court judges to take a 360-degree look at how India’s COVID-19 management system collapsed and came to this sorry pass”. The media will necessarily be a major platform for such a call to conscience. Nothing will change unless there is the bringing together of cause and effect in order to arrive at a calculus of loss.

Two analyses by The Wire over the last fortnight appeared to do just this. In the first, an economics professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst posed a question that was playing on every mind: ‘Did Political Rallies Contribute to an Increase in COVID-19 Cases in India?’ (May 2). The answer was arrived at, not by intuition but the painstaking collection of data on daily cases in 25 Indian states. By tracking the ebbs and flows of the disease in the electoral states and contrasting the pattern with that prevailing in states that saw no elections, he concludes that political rallies did indeed create “a fertile ground for the rapid transmission of the virus across a wide section of the population”.

In the second, a well-known architect weighed in on the Central Vista (‘On Display in Delhi Now, a Central Vista to Criminal Negligence’, May 6). It noted how the Rs 20,000-crore project got through with little bureaucratic oversight, even as the first news of the pandemic in China was flowing in early last year. It was granted environmental clearances, with tenders issued, even as a punishing lockdown was imposed in 2020. This time, ten days into the Delhi-specific lockdown that banned all outdoor construction activity in the city; work on the Central Vista was allowed to carry on because it was declared “an essential service”.

How do ordinary citizens arrive at answers to over-arching questions? How do they assess monstrous perversion of priorities?  The media must be there for them, unshackled and unafraid.

Distinguishing a ‘godi media’ headline…

Sometimes scrolling down one’s Twitter timeline is an education in itself. Came across this tweet from Govindraj Ethiraj, on a headline carried in The Economic Times of May 4 that read: ‘Order for 160 million vaccine doses placed last month: Centre’. Ethiraj asked, “If you were the headline writer, would you have said last month or last week..?” Senior journalist Prem Panicker joined in with what he felt was the most accurate headline of all: “Order for vaccines due May 1 was placed on April 28: Centre”.

As for an intriguing recent headline, my vote would go to this one: ‘Nehru, Gandhi will report to Stalin in TN govt’, which had appeared in the Times of India on May 7. The news report it highlighted was about there being a K. Gandhi and a K.N. Nehru in M.K. Stalin’s new cabinet!


Whitewashing Kerala CM Vijayan

A scathing letter from Murshida K: “The report headlined, ‘Kerala CM Vijayan Requests UP CM Adityanath To Ensure Expert Healthcare to Siddique Kappan‘ (April 25) is disappointing, to say the least. Your readers deserve to know what preceded and prompted CM Vijayan’s belated intervention.  Raihanath Siddique, who has been making impassioned pleas for civil society and political leaders to intervene for her husband’s release, virtually lambasted the CM on Sunday (April 25, 2021) for saying there was nothing he could do in the UP case. Mrs Siddique clearly asked the chief minister what was stopping him from taking up the case. “Now that the election is over, if that’s what prevented you…, please speak up,” she said while talking to reporters. Here lies the crux of the issue that an independent media outlet has a duty to bring to light: As the state went to the polls, the Vijayan government didn’t want to be seen as – and accused by the BJP of – helping a “PFI terrorist”, as Mr Kappan has been branded not only by Sanghis but also by Vijayan’s online bhakts who dogpile on their “captain’s” critics to defend him at any cost. That’s the level of acceptance of majoritarian sentiments. Contrary to what many think, Kerala is not immune to this virus.

“Vijayan’s letter came after Mrs Siddique’s heart-rending outburst, a viral social media campaign for his release, mounting pressure from opposition parties and MPs, formal requests by the Kerala Union of Working Journalists, a letter from the veteran journalist P. Sainath, and social media comments by CPI(M) politburo member, M.A. Baby. These crucial details were not pointed out to your readers.

“Having burned its fingers during the tumultuous Sabarimala controversy, the party is keen to claw back its Hindu votes. A convenient and fail-safe remedy it has devised – the campaigns for the local body polls and the assembly election are testimony to this strategy – is to engage in Islamophobic dog-whistling in order to consolidate all non-Muslim votes, including those of the upper-caste Hindu and Christian voters who have historically viewed the CPI(M) with suspicion. Remember how CM Vijayan feigned ignorance when asked about a vile “love jihad” comment made by an alliance partner, Jose K. Mani of the Kerala Congress?…

“Why does the fact that a police force, under a “secular, progressive” chief minister, acting as if its boss is Amit Shah, not news? Why is there no commentary in the English media about the CBI always wanting to postpone the Lavalin case hearing in the Supreme Court? Given the carte blanche that CM Vijayan has given his police chief, one often wonders whether the agency is waiting for Loknath Behera to retire and take over as its new director to open an investigation.

When a celebrity minister like K.K. Shailaja appears without a face mask in election rallies and roadshows with people milling about her, and approvingly posts videos of frenzied crowds including kids, why doesn’t it elicit the kind of media response that an unmasked Modi or Shah does? The state is now paying the price for the political class’s wanton disregard for Covid rules…Vijayan’s troll army, often as vicious as Amit Malviya’s malware, is charitably called ‘Cyber Comrades’. It was honoured for its “services” last May Day by the “captain” himself…

“As a person who prizes real adversarial journalism and admires as well as supports the good work you have done, I have a humble request: Please wise up to the slick propaganda of the government and hire journalists who are not Vijayan bhakts. Just because someone calls themselves progressive, secular or inclusive doesn’t mean we don’t have to ask tough questions of them.”

Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: PTI


Don’t dismiss homoeopathy

M.V. Thomas, a research scholar, weighs in on criticism of homoeopathy: I came to know that your news portal is propagating that homoeopathy is unscientific (‘A Homeopathic Defence Against COVID-19 Is No Defence at All’, June 14, 2020). I request you to direct your attention to a study cited in researchgate.net.

If you are not convinced, I request you to debate on the subject further. Please do not make conclusions without knowing the truth!

Sputnik vaccine

Niraj Vashi, from Surat, writes in: “I am an admirer of the good work done by The Wire. I therefore wish to bring to your kind notice that an important risk associated with the Sputnik V vaccine has been ignored by the media. The reputed journal, The Lancet, published an article that the COVID-19 vaccines which use an AD5 viral vector (used in the second dose of Sputnik), poses the risk of enhancing susceptibility to HIV infection.

I was surprised to note that no media house has posed this question in the interviews done with RDIF CEO Kirill Dimitriev. Also, the Indian government does not appear to have taken this into consideration.  I believe that a clarification from the manufacturers of Sputnik is necessary for public interest before Sputnik is put into use in India.

Release Devangana Kalita

Researchers from the Institute of Development Studies: “As India passes 20 million reported COVID-19 cases, those in jail are at serious risk from contracting Covid-19 due to poor conditions and should be urgently released on humanitarian grounds. This includes activist, researcher and former IDS student Devangana Kalita. May 23 marks the one-year anniversary of her incarceration for taking part in peaceful protests against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA).

According to research from the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (‘Covid-19 in prisons in low-and middle-income countries’), Covid-19 will spread exponentially within and outside of prison facilities without immediate and aggressive efforts to address overcrowding and poor sanitation. With a limited window of opportunity to act before the infection has drastic health impacts inside a prison, urgent government action is essential. This includes the release of pre-trial detainees previously denied bail, as well as limits on new arrivals…

For the past year Devangana and Natasha Narwal have continued studying from their prison cell while also campaigning for prison reform, including conditions for social distancing, the right to daily phone calls to family for quarantined prisoners, and access to medical care during the Covid-19 pandemic…

To find out more about Devanagana Kalita’s case read ‘IDS alum jailed in India for peaceful protest‘.

Devangana Kalita. Photo: YouTube


Pandemic year, unpaid dues

A teacher working as guest faculty sent in this very distressing mail: I teach as a guest faculty member at Non Collegiate Women’s Education Board (NCWEB), Delhi University. There are 100s of people like us who are employed by NCWEB on a contractual basis to teach at its centres. We have not received our dues for close to a year. guest faculty members have not received the payment for: 1. Rs. 500 deducted from each class of guest faculties for the semester from Sept-Dec 2019. 2. Exam copies checked for various semesters. 3. The entire semester from Jan-May 2020. 4. Semester Oct-Dec 2020 (2nd and 3rd year classes)/ Semester Dec, 2020-March, 2021 (1st year classes). If we collate the amount due, each faculty member is supposed to get Rs. 1,75,000. This excludes invigilation and exam copies checking payment. The University authorities work at a snail’s pace. They have no regard whatsoever for the concerns of guest faculty. Many of us are in serious financial stress because of this. A pandemic is raging and they have not even communicated with us as to when we will be paid. Not just NCWEB, many guest faculties at the School of Open Learning have also not received payments. We have been protesting online but to no avail. Here’s the hashtag trend for your reference: #DU_प्रशासन_वेतन_दो


Wrong headline

Alfonso Daniels, who works for Financial Transparency Coalition: “I am writing to you regarding a PTI release carried online by your website on April 23, 2020 with the headline “Majority of COVID-19 Recovery Funds in India Went To Big Corporations: Report“. This was based on the analysis of covid recovery measures in nine developing countries carried out by the Financial Transparency Coalition, and released as a report in April 2020.  We recently held an event around the same issue and have been conducting a post event analysis, collating all the global media releases and coverage of the report.

While the body of your report reads fine, we just realised that the headline is wrong. The analysis was conducted in nine countries — and the outcome for India within that framework was different. The majority of the recovery funds in India did not in fact go to big corporations.

Such a headline without sufficient explanation would negate the facts and findings as presented in the report and could also compromise the integrity of our analysis. We, therefore, request you to rectify the headline as soon as possible.


‘PM CARES’ not original

Apropos the public editor’s piece, ‘Backstory | A Question the Media Seldom Asks: Does the PM Care?’ (April 24), I just wanted to draw your attention to the fact that the term ‘PM CARES’ as devised by GOI is not original. The Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was first introduced in the US Senate on March 19, 2020. It was passed on March 27, 2020. PM Modi first announced it on March 28, 2020.

Write to [email protected]