A devastating COVID surge takes a fresh toll on Indian journalism

More than a year into the global pandemic, the coronavirus has exploded across India. The spread has been fueled, in part, by possible new variants and the recent holding of mass public events, including political rallies and religious celebrations; vaccination rates, meanwhile, remain low, even as Indian manufacturers have busily churned out doses for residents of other countries. Hospitals have run low on beds and oxygen, and crematoria are overflowing; steel pipes at one such facility in Surat, in Gujarat state, melted from overuse. India has recorded more than three-hundred-thousand new daily cases for six days in a rowsmashing the daily record for a single country several times over—and that figure is likely a substantial undercount. So, too, is the official daily death count, which yesterday came close to three thousanda function of factors ranging from familial shame to political pressure. “It’s a complete massacre of data,” Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times. “We believe the true number of deaths is two to five times what is being reported.”

News outlets, from the local to the international, have sent journalists to cremation and burial sites to try and collect more accurate death data, among other perilous assignments. “Some of the best journalists in India covering the COVID devastation are not on Twitter, Insta, etc.,” Rana Ayyub, a prominent Indian journalist, noted overnight. “Away from the din of social media, they strive to get us the truth while being vulnerable to ‘punishment’ by state governments and no access to legal protection or healthcare.” A growing number of reporters have themselves succumbed to COVID. Recently, Vinay Srivastava, a journalist in Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh state, came down with COVID symptoms, but couldn’t get a test or medical care. In an appeal for help, he tweeted his declining oxygen levels and tagged local officials. He died ten days ago. On Friday, Kakoli Bhattacharya, a journalist who worked as a news assistant for The Guardian, died in Delhi, at the age of fifty-one; on Saturday, Rohitash Gupta, a thirty-six-year-old reporter in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, died at home. His family said that he did not get a hospital bed. On Sunday, Amjad Badshah, a journalist in Odisha state, died at the age of forty-five. Four reporters in Mumbai died the same day. According to the Press Emblem Campaign, a media group based in Switzerland, more than a hundred journalists have died of COVID in India, in total, with forty-five of those deaths coming in the last two weeks.

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Journalists in India aren’t just confronting a national health risk—the country’s COVID surge comes amid a period of deteriorating freedoms for the press, specifically. In recent years, Indian reporters, and particularly women and minorities, have faced a rash of online abuse, as well as physical violence at the hands of officials and civilians tied to the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has also worked to manipulate newspaper and TV coverage via a system of financial and regulatory carrots and sticks. At the start of the pandemic, the government asked India’s Supreme Court to force news organizations to clear their COVID coverage with officials; the court said no, but directed outlets to publish the government’s official line. Over the summer, dozens of journalists who criticized the official pandemic response faced arrest or other legal censure, according to The Guardian; earlier this year, authorities charged journalists covering protests against agricultural reforms with sedition and other offenses.

Since the COVID surge began, officials have similarly lashed out at independent reporting. Politicians affiliated with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have chafed at questions about the wisdom of holding packed rallies, and at criticism of Modi’s handling of the crisis, including internationally—yesterday, India’s High Commission in Australia wrote to The Australian newspaper and slammed it for running an article that referred to a “viral apocalypse.” In at least one troubling case, the threats to public health and press freedom have interlocked. Last week, Siddique Kappan—a journalist from Kerala state who was detained in Uttar Pradesh, in October, while traveling to cover a high-profile gang-rape case—reportedly collapsed in a prison that has seen a rash of COVID cases; he subsequently tested positive for the disease and was taken to a hospital where, according to his union, he has been chained to a cot. Amid concerns for Kappan’s wellbeing, Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala, wrote to Yogi Adityanath, his counterpart in Uttar Pradesh (and a Modi ally), requesting “humane treatment.” Today, the Supreme Court demanded that officials in Uttar Pradesh hand over Kappan’s medical records.

As with other recent crises, the internet has become a key locus of repression, too. Modi’s government has repeatedly, over the years, imposed internet blackouts, and it recently tightened rules governing independent-minded news sites. During the recent farmers’ protests, officials ordered Twitter to take down accounts, including that of The Caravan magazine, and tweets that were critical of Modi; Twitter initially complied, then reinstated them. Now the authorities are once again ordering Twitter, as well as Facebook and Instagram, to block posts, including some posted by journalists, criticizing Modi’s pandemic management; as BuzzFeed’s Pranav Dixit put it, with the pandemic in India “burning out of control, the country’s government is cracking down—on social media.” In Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath has even directed law enforcement to start confiscating the property of “anti-social elements” who “spoil the atmosphere” by posting about oxygen shortages online.

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Yesterday, the editorial board of the Washington Post decried the deterioration of internet freedom in India, and urged President Joe Biden to condemn it, in addition to providing India with disaster relief. The aid pledges of Western countries and corporations are increasingly driving US coverage of India’s surge, along with ubiquitous, haunting images of mass cremation sites that are, in many respects, more visceral than the imagery that has typically illustrated stories of COVID flare-ups in Western countries. Such differences are always worth interrogating. Most of all, Western media should avoid treating India’s surge as a sad event in a distant land, as international-aid stories often become, and treat it instead as part of an interconnected, global story that we are all still living, and that is increasingly structured around international patterns of variant spread and unequal vaccine access. The same goes for India’s deteriorating media climate: An attack on press freedom somewhere is an attack on press freedom everywhere—and that’s especially true when the story concerns all of us.

Below, more on India, COVID, and press freedom around the world:


Other notable stories:

  • CJR’s Alexandria Neason spoke with—and featured the work of—Drew Arrieta, a Minnesota-based photojournalist who has covered the protests that have followed the police killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright in the state. “I haven’t received any monetary returns or riches, but that’s not my guiding compass,” Arrieta says. “There’s a major need in storytelling to provide a more bottom-up perspective.” Meanwhile, on our podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with Mel Reeves, the editor of the Black-owned Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, about the local and national coverage of policing and protest in the state. You can listen here, and read a Q&A here.
  • After labeling opinion contributions as “Op-Eds” (short for “opposite the editorial page”) for more than fifty years, the Times is doing away with the term. “The reason is simple,” Kathleen Kingsbury, the paper’s opinion editor, writes. “In the digital world, in which millions of Times readers absorb the paper’s journalism online, there is no geographical ‘Op-Ed,’ just as there is no geographical ‘Ed.’” Going forward, the Times will label contributions as “Guest Essays,” a term that clarifies “the relationship between the writer and the Times,” and reflects the goal of convening “a wide range of voices and views.”
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin profiles Cesar Conde, who, nearly a year after taking charge of NBCUniversal News Group, has “begun to put his stamp on the organization.” Conde “has made it clear he wants the division to place a bigger bet on streaming,” and will likely ask TV stars including Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid to host content in that area, Mullin writes. He has also “emphasized fiscal discipline, centralizing oversight of the news networks and cutting executive positions” across NBC’s channels.
  • In media-jobs news, Tom Llamas, a former anchor on ABC’s World News Tonight, will host a prime-time show on an NBC News streaming platform, Mullin also reports. Elsewhere, Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed’s media editor, is headed to ProPublica, where he will cover “voting, platforms, disinformation, and online manipulation.” And Nikole Hannah-Jones will become Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, in addition to her work for the Times.
  • SiriusXM is acquiring 99% Invisible, an independently-owned podcast about “unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” Roman Mars, the show’s host and owner, told Reggie Ugwu, of the Times, that he increasingly felt “at sea” navigating the podcast business. “Everyone is trying to crack this question of how to get people to pay for premium audio,” he said. “One of the things I liked about Sirius was they were like, ‘We already did that a decade ago and make $8 billion a year.’ They’d already figured it out.”
  • Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton explored the first issue of the Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media, a new publication that, he writes, promises “just-the-facts description, not theory or causality.” The journal’s founders write that the “whiplash of the past few years of digital media research, the attention paid first to ‘echo chambers,’ then to ‘fake news,’ now to ‘radicalization,’ is inimical to the accumulation of knowledge,” and argue that “we need a more stable metric for ‘topical importance’ than media attention.”
  • OptOut, a news app that aggregates stories exclusively from independent media, has left Substack and will host its own site; editors cited, in part, the cut that Substack takes from contributions, as well as growing earnings disparities between the platform’s users and its hosting of “several prominent anti-transgender writers.” The Objective, a media-criticism publication, also recently quit Substack and cited its anti-trans users.
  • And at a “policy” retreat (scare quotes mine) for House Republicans, Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary under George W. Bush, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who held the job under Donald Trump, advised lawmakers on “how to deal with the media.” Per Politico, Fleischer played “video clips that featured coaches and athletes giving shining examples of how to tackle questions from reporters.”

ICYMI: The limits of the news peg

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.