Editors Guild, PEN Delhi Condemn Govt's Attitude Towards Free Press in Dealing with Pandemic

Both noted that the FIR registered by Uttar Pradesh police against The Wire was a grave intrusion into press freedom.

New Delhi: As many as two writers’ and journalists’ bodies have released statements in the past 24 hours, noting the particular treatment of the media by the Indian government amidst a global pandemic. In their releases, both recognised that the FIR registered by Uttar Pradesh police against The Wire was a grave intrusion into press freedom.

The Editors Guild of India has released a statement condemning the recent government statement before the Supreme Court which effectively places the blame of migrant workers’ decision to walk home at the beginning of the national lockdown, on the media.

In a recent PIL, the Centre had sought a direction from the Supreme Court 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.”

Also read: Coronavirus v. Free Speech: Modi Government Opens New Battlefront in Supreme Court

The government told the apex court that media had caused the panic among the workers which led to their mass movement out of big cities. Notably, the lockdown was announced on March 23 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said it would begin in four hours.

A report on The Caravan says that in a meeting between Modi and several owners and editors of newspapers, the former had allegedly urged the latter to publish positive stories as his government tackled the pandemic.

“This [the government’s insistence that media was to blame] led the apex court to observe that while it didn’t want to inhibit the debate on the pandemic in any way, the media should refer to and publish the official version of the developments pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic,” notes the Guild’s statement, which also recognises that the advice is “gratuitous and unnecessary.”

In their piece on The Wire, Devika Tulsiani and Soutik Banerjee say that “at present, there are no credible studies or reports that argue, let alone establish, the migration of workers was motivated by anything other than the announcement of the lockdown measures.”

The Editors Guild statement notes that the current work of media is being done under trying circumstances, in the midst of circumstances which are unprecedented. It says, “No democracy anywhere in the world is fighting the pandemic by gagging its media.”

In the same statement, the Guild also highlighted that the FIR registered by Uttar Pradesh police against The Wire (over an article that carried facts which were part of public record) was an “overreaction and an act of intimidation.”

The essential necessity of a free press in tackling a pandemic is also the subject of a statement released on April 2 by PEN Delhi.

“It is in this context that PEN Delhi notes with concern the attitude of the Indian government, state governments and police authorities towards the media in India, during the ongoing battle against COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown it has led to,” says the statement.

The detailed statement lists out several instances – including the FIR against The Wire – where journalists have been stopped from doing their work or intimidated similarly.

“In UP, Vijay Vineet, news editor of Jansandesh Time was served a notice by the police for a story on the Musahar community, a Dalit community, having to eat grass as a consequence of their plight having worsened during the lockdown (many of the community’s members are daily wage earners),” the statement notes.

In her report on the aftermath of the publication of the initial report, Ismat Ara had noted on The Wire that the posts on social media had resulted in the district administration providing the Musahar children with meals.

The PEN statement also notes the death and rape threats faced by Vidya Krishnan, a freelance journalist who wrote a critical article in The Atlantic on India’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“It was also suggested on social media that Krishnan be prosecuted under some of India’s disturbing anti-free speech laws, including “sedition” under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code,” the statement says.

It also highlights how questions posed by health journalists on the government’s response to the crisis remains “unanswered.”

The two statements come in the backdrop of questions during the health ministry’s daily briefing only being allegedly limited to journalists from the state-run Doordarshan and the news agency ANI.