The Coronavirus Crisis Demands Everyone Act Responsibly. So What Happened to the Media?

The ‘Godi’ media attacks in a herd. So, when you switch channels or read another newspaper you will find the same untruth repeated ad nauseam.

Many institutions of democracy in our country have been compromised during the last six years, but none perhaps as severely as the media, the fourth pillar of democracy. There are some honourable exceptions no doubt but their number is dwindling fast. The people at large tend to believe what they see or read, until truth dawns on them in course of time. How long that will take is anybody’s guess.

India is facing, like the rest of the world, an unprecedented crisis because of COVID 19. Everyone must behave responsibly in a crisis. Yet, the behaviour of a section of the media has not only been utterly irresponsible but also extremely damaging for our body politic.

The government of India, the ruling BJP and their cohorts in the media are out to destroy the basic structure of our constitution, the ethos of this great and ancient nation and all that independent India has stood for, by injecting communal poison in our society and promoting hatred and violence. But nothing could have been more objectionable than the manner in which a particular community has been maligned in recent days as the real carrier of the virus. True, some people were guilty of gross negligence. But the government has much to answer for too. I am not raising those issues today. There will be another day for that. I shall only assert that after the end of the present crisis there should be a thorough enquiry into the conduct not only of the Tablighi Jamaat but also in the government.

The brute force of this communalisation hit me hard when the first case of the virus was reported from my home district, Hazaribagh in Jharkhand some time ago. As the news started flashing on the TV and social media, one netizen said without any shame “Saala, zaroor Jamaat ka hoga (The fellow must be from the Jamaat).”  No questions asked; no enquiry made; no patience shown; but just the hammer of a hurriedly arrived at judgment. What was even more shocking was the support he received from others until it was clarified that the name of the victim showed that he was a Hindu. Perfectly well educated and reasonable people I have known all my life are today suddenly behaving irrationally and holding one community responsible for the spread of the virus in India.

Some of the TV anchors that think they control the universe and guide the sun, the moon and the stars in the firmament hold their daily ‘durbars’ in the evening. They speak more than the participants and in a language which is most offensive. They contribute immensely to the spread of this communal virus.  I wonder why some guests, including spokespersons of political parties, agree to participate in these programmes, only to be insulted and humiliated, without even getting the opportunity to have their say? They only lend respectability to such channels and their anchors.

The ‘Godi’ media attacks in a herd. So, when you switch channels or read another newspaper you will find the same untruth repeated ad nauseam. For the gullible, a lie becomes truth if repeated time and again. Action is taken immediately against media persons who report or write what the government does not want the people to hear. So, policemen will travel all the way from Ayodhya in UP to serve summons on a senior and respected journalist because he dared report how the chief minister of UP made a mockery of all norms of social distancing to personally participate in a religious programme where his presence was avoidable. Yet, no action will be taken against the ‘Godi’ media persons for spreading pure poison. On the other hand, they are rewarded with select leaks from the government to carry on with its ‘agenda’ of blaming one community for the corona ills, be it the Defence Colony case in Delhi – where a Muslim security guard was quickly booked for allegedly spreading the coronavirus only for his test to come back negative –  or the spontaneous mass gathering of migrant workers at Bandra in Mumbai where some channels miraculously found a ‘Muslim’ angle.

The other day, a senior officer of the Maharashtra government committed the grave error of issuing a pass to the infamous Wadhawan family to travel in five cars to Mahabaleshwar. They were caught, put behind bars and the concerned officer immediately asked to proceed on leave, pending a detailed enquiry. But this was enough to get the ‘Godi’ media to latch on to this one episode and demand the resignation of the home minister of Maharashtra. Fortunately, they spared the chief minister. The officer concerned belongs to an all India service, and cannot be punished until the due process has been followed. So, an enquiry is a must. But the TV anchors were baying for his blood and demanding immediate and summary punishment. If the officer had acted under the instruction of the minister, the easiest thing for him to do would have been to let the media know the truth. But he has not done so till date. The truth will be out some day, but we must remember that affairs of state are not conducted like TV debates where the anchor is the police, the prosecutor and the judge and justice is instant.

Some sections of the print media too are in the same league. They are no more than the gazetteers of the government, saying what the government wants them to say, writing what the government wants the people to read. I met the owner of one such media group on a flight the other day. We happened to be sitting next to each other. He was very critical of the way the government, specially the prime minister, was behaving. When I told him that his newspaper, on the other hand was full of praise for the PM, he told me that they had to do it in order to survive in business.

The list of journalists who have lost their jobs in recent years is long and distinguished. Only the obsequious survive. I am told that every evening the TV channels and the print media receive instructions from ‘sources’ close to the government about the subjects they have to highlight, the editorial line they have to take, the participants for the debates they must invite, the articles which should be published and the manner in which the government’s achievements have to be promoted. They will never question the government. But while they just ignore the faults, frailties and failures of the government, they go hammer and tongs at the Opposition. How dare the opposition or anyone else oppose the government! So, every evening and morning the opponents are hauled over the coals, while the government’s failures are not scrutinised.

The people are our only hope against authoritarianism. They can be fooled for sometime, but not forever. And hats off to those who are still fighting.

Yashwant Sinha is a former finance minister and former external affairs minister of India.