India: Media’s Crackdown During COVID-19 Lockdown
report was published by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, New Delhi, on June
15, 2020. It examines the “crackdown on the media” for reporting during the
Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of
Covid-19 in India on March 24. The report states that locking down the country
without prior intimation or preparation was “…bound to turn into a massive
humanitarian crisis.” Millions of poor migrant workers were left with no work,
food or shelter, and no means of transport to go back home.
March 31, the Supreme Court upheld the media’s right to discuss Covid-19 in
response to an affidavit filed by the
central government. The government claimed that inaccurate reporting by the
media may potentially cause panic among the public. Despite the judgement, the
report states, central and state governments kept targeting journalists who
were “…risking their lives [because of the virus] to convey the news of
mismanagement, deficiencies, corruption, and lack of adequate PPE [personal protective
equipment] at hospitals.”
report contains four chapters: ‘Crackdown for reporting COVID-19’s worst
humanitarian crisis is systematic’ (chapter 1), 'Laws invoked against the media
persons' (chapter 2), ‘Crackdown on journalists during the lockdown’ (chapter 3),
and a conclusion (chapter 4).
Between March 25 and May 31, 2020, there were 55 cases in which journalists faced arrest, registration of FIRs against them, show cause notices, or physical assaults or threats, for their reportage on Covid-19.
The highest number of ‘attacks’ on media persons were reported in Uttar Pradesh (eleven journalists), followed by Jammu and Kashmir (six); Himachal Pradesh (five); Maharashtra, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal (four each); Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Punjab (two each); and one each in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Nagaland, and Telangana.
The laws invoked against journalists by the government included several sections of the Indian Penal Code, and clauses from the Disaster Management Act, 2005; Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897; the Information Technology Act, 2000; Motors Vehicles Act, 1988; the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
The report states that at least 10 journalists were arrested for spreading misinformation about Covid-19, reporting on corruption, violating lockdown rules (even though the press is an essential service exempted under the lockdown), and reporting on the shortage of food in ration shops and of PPE kits in hospitals.
Andrew Sam Raja Pandian – founder of SimpliCity, a digital news portal based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu – was arrested on April 23 for running reports on Covid-19. The reports were on doctors facing a shortage of food and PPE kits in a hospital in Coimbatore, and ration items being diverted by employees of public distribution service (PDS) shops. Pandian was released on bail on April 28.
On April 27, Zubair Ahmed – a freelance journalist from Andaman and Nicobar Islands – was arrested for tweeting about a family which was quarantined after one of its members spoke to a Covid-19 positive person over the phone. He was released on bail on April 28.
Journalist Vijay Vineet and Subhash Rai, editor-in-chief of the UP-based daily Jansandesh Times, received a show cause notice from the Varanasi District Magistrate on March 26. This was for a report claiming that members of the Musahar community, in Baragaon block of Varanasi district, were surviving on grass during the lockdown. The notice called on Vineet and Rai to publish a denial of the report.
In Himachal Pradesh, the police filed an FIR against journalist Om Sharma for going live on Facebook to report on hungry migrant labourers protesting in the industrial town of Baddi in Himachal Pradesh’s Solan district. The FIR called his report ‘sensational’ and ‘fake news’. A second FIR was lodged on April 26, for sharing a news report from Amar Ujala on Facebook. That report said the government had ordered businesses to close down for a few months if any of their employees tested Covid-19 positive. A third FIR was filed a day later for his criticism on Facebook of the Solan district administration over its directive to shut shops.
The report states that the ruling political parties in the centre and states have been “…taking measures to force the media to toe their lines,” and that the police have been compliant in registering the ruling parties’ FIRs.
The State’s behaviour towards journalists during the Covid-19 lockdown “… shows the fragile atmosphere in which the media is operating in India.
Focus and Factoids by Ananya Redkar.
Rights and Risks Analysis Group, New Delhi
Rights and Risks Analysis Group, New Delhi
15 Jun, 2020