On 22nd March, 2020, to show gratitude to doctors, paramedics, policemen and sanitation workers, lakhs of people came on their balcony to emote their sentiments and were seen beating in cacophony whatever utensil they found suitable. This clarion call (as some liked to call it) was given by PM Modi.
All kudos to the intention of the PM, however, what got missed is this celebration is another supremely important corona warrior: Media. Media, as an independent entity, has played a really important role in the last few weeks. From the DOs to the DON’Ts, from the areas under serious threat to the location of corona testing centers, from speeches of PMs to CMs, stories from the highway to stories of gali-muhalla, from the cities with international cafes to the villages and towns without dhabhas, it was the media that informed and awakened us about all the hip-hop.
Staying at home with parents who love to watch television, one is duty-bound to watch news channels in order to be able to spend some time with them. I am not a big fan of television media, but I watch a few channels attentively. From my experience since day 1 of lockdown, when most, but certainly not all, of big media companies were busy in holding Muslims responsible for the spread of corona and were only doing newsroom journalism, there were many regional print media and visual media companies that did great reporting by stepping outside of the vicious game. They actually went on streets and reported the plight of vulnerable sections of our society, whereas many non-television media channels conducted interviews with public-intellectuals assessing the past, present and future.
However, all is not pink, several journalists across India have been impeded by police and local-level politicians for reporting the hunger and helplessness of workers. Shockingly, the impediment has also come in the form of FIRs. In the last 50 days, FIRs have been filed against several journalists across the country, but the most heinous and condemnable case comes from Himachal Pradesh. Since the lockdown, 6 journalists have had to face not just one but multiple FIRs (13 in total). The reasons for FIRs primarily included reporting on administration’s failure in providing ration to migrant workers or laxity in quarantining interstate travelers or workplaces where despite lockdown the work continued.
These are not the one off people to reveal truth to power. A report by SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network) also revealed a similar plight of workers vis-à-vis ration and wages. Their report informs that out of 17,000 workers that contacted them, 50% of the workers had rations left for less than a day. Similar situation is revealed by a survey of 4,000 workers between 13th April, 2020 and 9th May, 2020 by Azim Premji University members that shows that about 80% of urban workers lost their jobs during the lockdown and the average weekly earnings of those who were still employed fell by 61%. Likewise, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s report that declared that over 122 million people lost their jobs just in April in India and about 75% of them were small traders and wage-labourers. Now, if these reports and such live evidences are to be not exposed, how do the governments expect to know the reality on ground?
During the virtual interaction with journalists’ right before declaring lockdown, PM Modi prescribed that “positive stories” should be shared and “the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumour mongering” should be tackled. I wonder how is a journalist to decide if a story is positive or negative. Is reporting the truth about the poor medical facility in our hospitals across cities, negative? Is reporting doctor’s complaint about how they were ill-treated at the hands of government for complaining about the lack of protective gears, negative? Is reporting about the ostracisation of doctors and labourers in their rented residence, negative? Is reporting the fear, hunger and uncertainty vis-à-vis migrants, negative? Given the pandemic and our response to it, if a media house does its job ethically well, we should expect a sight of doom and gloom as one cannot become oblivion to the ground reality in the name of negative news.
What came as the biggest shock in the same row is that the Centre knocked on the door of Supreme Court asking it to allow to them censor news in a way that whatever is going to be reported via electronic or print media, social media or online news portals will have to pass from the mechanism provided by the central government. The Supreme Court, however, desisted from accepting this prayer of the Centre.
Being locked-down at home, it is only when such critical reports come to us do we get to know the real picture. Everyone would agree that truth coming out of such reports is extremely important because only when we know the reality can we do something to make situations better. Moreover, in a democracy, the most effective way to bring government to action is by making discontented noise about it.
When the governments believed that there were no migrants on streets, it is them who showed the tired travelers, when the governments thought that every poor received ration, it is them who showed empty stomachs. Even during such constraint times, they brought various scams to light. Suppressing the news will only put everyone in denial, and denial comes before the fall. During the pandemic, honest and humane reporting has become even more important because the fragility of lives and livelihoods has enhanced many folds. What can be more important than the stories of our workers and their family on which our entire country’s essential services run?
I would urge that it is primetime that we as a nation recognize good and essential journalism and the indispensible role it plays in society. When newsroom journalists and some politicians seem to suggest “all is well”, it is these small-scale media persons of regional scope who are present at the forefront and shed light on the ground reality. Just like our policemen, doctors and sanitation workers, media persons are also risking their life to be able to do their obligatory work of providing us with truth and nothing else.
Therefore, in recognition to the paramount work by our journalists, I would request PM Modi that our journalists too be recognized as corona warriors, their work be appreciated and FIRs lodged on them for their incredible and revealing ground-truth be taken back. If it were not them, some mischievous policemen and politicians would play bluff with the entire country and put thousands and lakhs of life in danger. Like CM of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, urged media personals to keep highlighting the gaps in the relief work, there should be a nation-wide declaration made by PM Modi on the same lines and with the same conviction. As for the general citizens, I would plead that it of utmost importance that we stand by such journalists and media houses. The kind of wide-reached solidarity that we showed for TheWire’s Siddharth Varadarajan needs to be repeated now with even more zeal. For only in doing so can we ensure truth to reach ours and governments’ eyes and democracy to prevail.
Yogesh Upadhyay is an MA Sociology student at South Asian University and has keen interest in politics.