Media in the Time of COVID-19

These are testing times for the government and the media as COVID-19 continues to spread. The government seems rather unwilling to let critical voices have their say about the way in which the crisis is being dealt with. There is an explicit expectation that the media’s coverage should be “positive” and follow the official line. While much of the media, corporate-owned as it is, has surrendered, a small section is courageously following journalistic ethics. This article examines authoritarian tendencies that undermine the autonomy of journalism as an important platform of the public sphere.

 

The spread of the COVID-19 has proved deadly, and this is a challenging time for the union as well as state governments as they work to address this health emergency. However, shows  that in times of crisis, democratic governments may take a dangerous autocratic turn. In such a situation, journalism has a great role to play in a democracy, as it has been ideally visualised as a platform for objective information and critical-rational discourse. Thus, the health of journalism in a country can be examined in the times of a crisis. 

However, corporate control over most media bodies also means that they become an instrument of the ideological apparatus of the state. There are many concerns associated with the COVID-19 crisis: ill-equipped public health systems, policies to combat the pandemic, and the lack of planning and support to the vulnerable sections. These issues demand serious examination, but the mainstream media, barring some courageous exceptions, seems to be forgetting its democratic role. The vilification of migrant labourers and a minority community whilst failing to critique the lack of measures to help these sections deal with the crisis is an important such indicator.

Manipulation of Discourse

Just before the announcement of the nationwide lockdown till 14th April 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly called upon print and electronic media owners and editors of the country and asked them to support government efforts to combat the pandemic and also advised them to present “positive news” related to COVID-19 (Sagar 2020). Plainly put, these were the owners and editors who control most of the Indian media at the national and regional levels who were advised to abide by the official narrative and present information as provided to them by the government about COVID-19.

Why would media houses follow government diktat rather than investigating the real state of affairs, unless they have associated business interests? Journalism is considered to be an ethical communicative practice in a democracy, but corporate ownership subverts the autonomy of journalism and the freedom of the press. Unfortunately, this conflict of interest has become a common feature of Indian journalism.
However, even though a majority of Indian media is under corporate control, there are many counter-voices both within and outside this grouping. Thus, the Indian mediascape has become a battleground of ideologies. Many of these alternate counter-voices have raised genuine issues of social concern during the pandemic outbreak. The prevalence of international media on the internet and small media organisations in the country has played an important role in disseminating  factual and more nuanced information, but unfortunately, these platforms do not have the vast access that big corporate media platforms are privy to.  Most of the non-English mainstream media—both print and electronic—was seen to be playing a role that was far from responsible during the outbreak. A small section of the English print media has raised some pertinent questions, but they also have a select readership. The government, however, is not ready to listen to any rational criticism. The centre sought a direction from the Supreme Court on 31 March 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” (Livelaw News Network 2020). 

The sudden announcement of the lockdown which gave people barely four hours of advance notice created a nationwide panic, and the migrant labourers were the worst affected. In the absence of work and other support in the cities, thousands of labourers and their families desperately wanted to go back to their homes. With no transportation available, many began the arduous journey on foot, and many were subjected to police brutality along the way, and some have died on the road back home. The lockdown, thus, was worse than COVID-19 for the homeless and the poor. While a few in the media made visible their plight, a particular kind of media coverage and projection also led to the middle class blaming migrants for their “irresponsible behaviour” during the pandemic (Abi-Habib and Yasir 2020; Ellis-Petersen and Chaurasia 2020). 

It seems most media organisations were compelled to cover the labourers’ plight because of its sensational value, but this coverage was inadequate. However, journalism still survives because of a few courageous journalists in mainstream media and alternative media platforms. Two English dailies with their ground-level investigative reporting (one of which is known for its investigative news stories) covered the disaster with more empathy. Many others in their attempts to show the reality faced the wrath of the government (Scroll 2020). Further, even on social media platforms, doctors and nurses were heavily trolled when they voiced grievances about the lack of personal protective equipment (Bengali et al 2020). 

Media Shows Its Islamophobic Side

Media’s ugliest moment, however, was its coverage of the news surrounding  Delhi’s Tablighi Jamaat Markaz (meeting). Many participants had left after the markaz, but many were stranded in the mosque due to the lockdown and were later found infected. However, the media outrage that followed was clearly an extension of the already prejudiced and polarised coverage, as the Tablighi Jamaat was blamed for violating lockdown rules and for “corona jihad,” “Islamic insurrection,” and “corona terrorism.” This is clearly an example of fake news propagated by the mainstream media to further the predominant agenda (BBC 2020; News Laundry 2020). Muslims were also attacked in various parts of the country. 

News presented on the markaz immediately found space in social networking sites and public opinion was quickly constructed around the premise that Muslims were responsible for the pandemic. Never mind  that even though the markaz incident triggered a spread, it is not as if it was planned. The first case of the virus was identified in India in January. The abject lack of planning by the government was not adequately questioned by the mainstream media. Nor was it questioned as to why such a gathering was permitted in the first place.
People of other religious groups also gathered at religious places in large numbers even after the lockdown, but they were not criticised in a similar manner. However, when some journalists did raise questions, they were threatened with legal action (Scroll 2020). 

The Need for Greater Accountability 

Since most of the people are at home during the lockdown, it is natural to see a growth in media consumption. People are using various media platforms for COVID-19-related information,   but what is provided is far from factual and does not further a critical rational discourse. Rather, the  media has become a tool of propaganda and sensationalism. Some television news channels see a Chinese conspiracy in the spread of COVID-19. In such a “positive” atmosphere, the news related to labourers’ mass exodus and the markaz was mostly presented due to its sensational value. The true situation would not have gained attention in the first place, if not for the ground-level reports by the committed journalists and social media coverage. The Janata curfew announced on 22 March before the lockdown failed as people came out on the streets in the evening, clapping, banging utensils, shouting religious slogans, and blowing conch shells, as if they could defeat COVID-19 with a show of such masculinity. Social distancing was forgotten. Later, people were again asked to switch off residential lights for nine minutes and light a candle or diya in their balconies. Can the virus really be eradicated by chants of “go corona?” Yet, the media became a part of this “festivity.”  These exercises were lapped up by a majority of the news media, as it sells the big spectacle—a hyper real experience—and accepts the obeisance of a “supreme authority” along with a large number of citizens. The trivialisation of the crisis and a toxic “positivity” is ruling the media.

COVID-19 is a serious threat to the nation and therefore many rational measures and “honest conversations” must be expected from the government, which cannot be beyond the critical radar of journalism. The government has created a Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) Fund to combat the pandemic and many business corporations and common people have contributed to this fund. But, many questions have also been raised about the need for this fund, as the Prime Minister Relief Fund had already been working from 1948 onwards for such situations (Hindu 2020; Mody 2020). All these issues demand serious journalistic investigation in public interest.

The pandemic is also threatening an already-deteriorating economy, which also demands a thorough investigation beyond the official narratives. The media, however, has worries related to its own economic situation. Print media, especially, is dealing with a resource crunch, dwindling advertisements, and worries of reduction in circulation and readership. With concerns of job security, inadequate resource support, and abuses faced by the police, many journalists are putting their health at stake to cover the COVID-19 situation. This scenario does little to add to the morale of honest and responsible journalists. Some media houses have already begun cutting wages; an extension in the lockdown can create a new crisis in Indian journalism. 

The role of larger media as observed during the pandemic, however, is not an overnight shift. It has been visible for some time now.  The media has seen phenomenal growth during the last three decades, and India has become one of the biggest media markets in the world. The alliance between predominant religious fundamentalism and neo-liberalism has also shaped it. Profit, the promotion of majoritarian views, and the exclusion of marginalised voices have become its main features.

What should the role of governments be in such a situation, and what is it that journalism is meant to do? This is the time to introspect and examine the role of capitalism, state, and the media to avoid creating a future that threatens to destabilise democracy. Will this pandemic radically change society and governance models? Will the increased surveillance and policing become the new normal, or will we see increased efforts of building solidarity and cooperation?  Our media needs to introspect and pose these questions.

The author is thankful to the anonymous reviewer for suggestions that brought more clarity to the article. 

 

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