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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 21, New Delhi, May 9, 2020

The State of Indian News Media in the Times of Covid 19

Saturday 9 May 2020

by Naren Singh Rao

In a democratic set-up how should news media function in the times of crisis such as Covid 19? Should it function as the watchdog, functioning as the fourth estate, as conceptualised over the course of the maturation of the idea of democracy? Or should it function in coordination with governments claiming to be ‘‘waging a war’’ against ‘‘national/humanitarian crisis’’, which, interestingly, all governments howsoever oppressive they are always claim to do without fail? Surely, the latter can never be an option for any truthful, self-respecting news media anywhere in the world. Indeed, editorial independence is the backbone of news media. No matter whatever the circumstances are, editorial independence is absolutely sacrosanct and non-negotiable, come what may. The moment any news media start functioning in coordination with any government it ceases to be news media. In fact, it ends up becoming an agent of governmental propaganda and therefore must be recognised as such.

In the times of post-truth operating in the realm of neo-liberal economic and post-modern philosophic order, free-floating capital globally roams amok and naked nexus of politics, business and media is the new normal, as it turns out. The scientific, critical-rational thought system has been labelled as ‘‘incredulous’’ and, in the name of ‘‘subjective’’ and ‘‘open-ended’’ reality reactionary notions rooted in the worst of retrograde ideologies are sought to be humanely theorised. All visible television anchors, corporate lobbyists and status quoist technocrats posing as public intellectuals indeed try hard to justify the media platforms functioning in coordination with government in the name of ‘‘waging a war’’ against ‘‘national crisis’’.

In this context it is pertinent to ask how the Indian news media has been functioning in the times of the prevailing Covid 19 crisis. During the entire crisis period, the majority of the mainstream Indian news media has become part of the government’s propaganda ecosystem. In the name of ‘‘waging a war’’ against the corona virus, the media ended up playing around with the narratives set by the government and ruling party’s propaganda machinery. As a matter of fact, only a few media outlets covered the plight of the migrant workers in the face of the uncertainties and anxieties looming large amidst nationwide lockdown. Even these stories remained inadequately researched, de-contextualised and incomprehensive. More importantly, no substantial follow-up was pursued, whatsoever.

It is a matter of public record that just prior to the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked scores of prominent print media houses’ owners and editors to abstain from negative coverage pertaining to Covid 19. It included even those media houses which are widely known for not pursuing the current dispensation’s ideological agenda per se. Indeed, it is a colossal journalistic tragedy wherein the Prime Minister of a ‘‘democratic’’ country calls the ‘‘independent’’ media’s owners and editors for the meeting and then asks them to abide by the government’s official information and avoid negative coverage; and, in turn, the media owners and editors faithfully oblige him by meticulously doing so. Not just this, these media owners and editors were so proud of their ‘‘achievement’’ of being called by the Prime Minister for the meeting that they even published their own photographs (of the meeting with the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi) on the front pages of their newspapers!

More worryingly, a large section of the mainstream news media, which is already quite infamous for brazenly propagating the communal and divisive agenda of the ruling regime of the RSS-BJP formation, shamelessly communalised Covid 19. They selectively picked up the cases of Muslim individuals who were suspected of corona virus infection. And by spinning this, television anchors started targeting and vilifying the entire Muslim community by running a high-octane, poisonous media trial with the choicest of lies and manufactured narratives such as Corona Jihad, Tableegh-Pak conspiracy and Tableeghistan. A mere civic negligence or wrong, inadvertently committed by some individuals associated with the Tablighi Jamaat was sensationally blown out of proportion in the most grotesque manner. The impact of such vicious, Islamophobic propaganda was catastrophic. In no time, it paved the way for an all-out propaganda against the Muslim citizens on social media platforms which, in turn, created mayhem across the country. It has been widely reported that due to the fear created by the news media and social media propaganda amidst the lockdown, Muslim citizens across the country were shunned, shamed, abused and physically attacked in varied spheres of everyday life by various social actors including police personnel.

The scores of media platforms planted umpteen number of fake news stories rooted in the dangerous narratives such as superstition and magic remedy. For instance, a couple of leading Hindi news channels have gone to the extent of claiming that Hindu sadhus in Ayodhya have found a ‘‘remedy’’ for the corona virus. The so called ‘‘remedy’’ was: To chant Jai Shri Ram for 15 times each hour and wear Tika and Choti ! Some other channels covered the BJP lawmakers and leaders audaciously advocating for totally unscientific ‘‘remedy’’ ranging from hawans, yagna and aahuti, to cow’s dung and urine!

Likewise, several channels propagated totally baseless, jingoistic narratives while suggesting that corona virus is a conspiracy hatched by China against countries like India. Such conspiracy theories-based stories pointed to the unfounded assumption that corona virus was developed in a laboratory in China in a bid to attack its ‘‘enemy’’ countries. It is important to note that such conspiracy theories had already been debunked by the internationally renowned scientific and fact-checking organisations; yet a larger section of the Indian news media kept on spreading such blatant lies unabashedly and unabatedly.

Indeed, it is quite disheartening to witness such precipitous downfall of the news media which was born in the womb of Indian freedom struggle. Moreover, this has been unfolding at a time when it could have played a stellar role in stemming the tide of the pandemic by honestly functioning as the watchdog rather than fomenting communal frenzy with an eye on profits and petty political gains.

(Naren Singh Rao is a Delhi-based media critic.)

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