Three weeks after India imposed a nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontiers s (RSF) looks back at the government’s frantic race to control all aspects of information about the crisis, trampling on journalistic freedom in the process.
At midnight on 25 March, 1.3 billion Indians were suddenly placed under lockdown. A few hours earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had personally asked the owners and editors of the 20 biggest mainstream print media outlets to publish “positive stories” about the crisis and to “act as a link between government and people.”
Four days later, on 29 March, it emerged that the epidemic in India had officially gone from limited “local transmission” (in which carriers are identified and their contacts can be traced) to “community transmission” (in which it is no longer known who is carrying and transmitting the virus).
But this information, of absolutely fundamental public interest, was not revealed in a government press release or at a press conference. It was inadvertently leaked in a health ministry directive to health professionals about operational procedures.
But the government continues to publicly maintain that India is still in the lower phase of limited local transmission. In reaction to this flagrant and dangerous disinformation, 20 journalists specializing in covering health issues addressed ten key questions to the government on 30 March about its handling of the crisis and the lockdown. They received no response.
“Ever since the start of the coronavirus crisis, the Indian authorities have displayed a lack of transparency towards the media that could eventually prove deadly,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Reporters are being denied access to public interest information and some are being prosecuted for revealing information. We urge Narendra Modi’s government to stop trying to impose its version of events and allow journalists to work with complete independence.”
The government has repeatedly tried to exercise total control over information about Covid-19. On 31 March, it asked the supreme court to “direct” the media to publish nothing about the epidemic “without first ascertaining the facts from the mechanism provided by the government.” This was tantamount to prior censorship, to forcing journalists to publish only government-approved information.
This would clearly have been unconstitutional and the outcry was such that the supreme court did not acquiesce. But it did however make concessions to the government, ruling that, to avoid the dissemination of “unverified news capable of causing panic,” the media must “refer to and publish the official version about the developments” including the government’s daily bulletin.
In a continuing display of governmental desire to restrict reporting, the health ministry dispatched the next day’s press conference in less than 15 minutes. The ministry’s representatives told reporters they would only take questions from Asian News International and the state TV broadcaster Doordarshan, both well known for supporting Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
While disturbing at the national level, this determination to control information has attained extreme proportions in the far-north Kashmir Valley, where the Jammu and Kashmir government announced for the fifth time on 3 April that it was extending its blocking of mobile Internet in the region although the supreme court had ruled as early as 10 January that such blocking was “inadmissible.”
RSF already pointed out on 26 March that blocking telecommunications in Jammu and Kashmir could be dangerous during the Covid-19 crisis. The Kashmir Press Club also condemned the government’s attempts to “throttle information on coronavirus amid the unprecedented lockdown across the region” after the regional health services director ordered doctors and paramedical staff “not to share information with media about the ongoing crisis.”
In India as a whole, several media outlets and journalists have been the targets of judicial proceedings sometimes bordering on harassment. This has been the case with The Wire, an independent news website that was formally accused on 1 April of publishing “fake news” about Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, because it reported that he attended a religious gathering on 25 March.
The site’s editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, is currently being investigated under articles 188 and 505 of the penal code for disobeying an “order duly promulgated by a public servant” and for “statements with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public.”
In Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital, the local BJP leader in the suburb of Ashiana filed a complaint on 7 April accusing a reporter, Prashant Kanojia, of making “objectionable remarks” on social media about Prime Minister Modi and Chief Minister Adityanath in connection with their handling of the lockdown. The police are now investigating Kanojia under various sections of the penal code for defamation and offences committed with intent to cause fear or alarm among the public.
On the evening of 7 April, a Damodharan TV reporter whose name is not being disclosed was arrested in Minjur, a suburb of the southeastern city of Chennai, as a result of a complaint filed by a local health centre doctor after the reporter filmed a pharmacy employee selling medicine to patients without prescriptions. He is charged with deception, forgery, and preventing a public servant from discharging their duty.
Online reporter Pawan Choudhary was arrested in Jamalpur, a city in the northeastern state of Bihar, on 6 April in connection with his social media coverage of Covid-19 developments in his neighbourhood, Keshopur, and was imprisoned in the adjoining city of Munger.
Calls to murder journalists
As well as being exposed to possible arrest, Indian journalists covering the Covid-19 epidemic are also liable to be the targets of cyber-harassment. The victims have included freelance journalist Vidya Krishnan, who has been subjected to an online hate campaign, including many calls for her to be murdered or gang-raped, ever since The Atlantic, a US monthly magazine, published an article by her on 27 March criticizing the “callousness” of India’s handling of the epidemic.
When contacted by RSF, she confirmed that the persons posting these hate messages with linked to the government and BJP.
“The threats of physical violence, rape and torture have been compounded by the health ministry’s insistence on describing any critical reporting as ‘fake news’,” she said. “Almost all science journalists in India are getting trolled for ‘unpatriotic’ coverage. In my case it got a little crazier because I am Indian and I am writing for Western publications against the Indian government.”
Another freelancer, Mumbai-based Rashmi Puranik, was subjected to online attacks orchestrated by BJP activists after she posted a tweet criticizing the prime minister’s call for people to light traditional Hindu candles to combat the coronavirus. She received many extremely obscene messages and, after she filed a complaint, one of these activists was finally detained by the police in Nashik, 160 km northeast of Mumbai.
India is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.