The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter: India’s lockdowns and Islamophobia

On April 21, Facebook announced a $5.7 billion investment in Jio Platforms Limited, India’s largest—and the world’s third-largest—mobile network operator, with over 370 million subscribers. In their official announcement, representatives of Facebook wrote, “India is in the midst of one of the most dynamic social and economic transformations the world has ever seen, driven by the rapid adoption of digital technologies.” The rest of the announcement focused on how this collaboration would seek to empower Indian businesses.

But in augmenting its association with India, where it already has 280 million users, Facebook must also come to reckon with India’s fraught and divided media.

Indian publications are divided on their portrayal of Narendra Modi’s BJP government. In August 2019, the government annexed Jammu and Kashmir and subsequently imposed an internet shutdown in the region (at 213 days, the longest ever Internet shutdown in a democracy). Outlets differed in their portrayal of the situation in Kashmir, some arguing that things were rapidly returning to normal, others drawing attention to human rights violations running rampant. The December 19th 2019 passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which expedites Indian citizenship for migrants from three of India’s neighbours of any regional religion except Islam, was met with similarly polarized coverage.

Recently, this division has shaped Indian coverage of COVID-19. On April 5, the government claimed to link more than a thousand positive COVID-19 cases to the annual meeting of a Muslim missionary group, the Tablighi Jamaat between March 8th and 10th.

Vitriol against the group—and all of Islam—from “bhakts” (staunch Modi supporters), flowed online. Hashtags like #BioJihad and #CoronoJihad trended on Twitter, the latter seen by up to as many as 165 million people according to an analysis by Equality Labs, an activist organization in the US. Understandably, missionaries who were at the meeting were required by law to report to health authorities in their home states. Less understandably, in some states they were told they would be charged with attempted murder if they failed to do so. Many in the media blamed the spread of Coronavirus on India’s Muslims.

A Facebook post by Zee News with the headline: “Kabab was served with bodily waste, the mentality of [Tablighi] Jamaatis prevails even abroad” (translated from Hindi). The article falsely claims that the photographed British Muslim men mixed feces in food served to non-Muslims. The original article has been changed after its claims were debunked. | Photo: Alt News

In the midst of this frenzy of hate, The Wire, a publication often critical of the Modi government’s Hindu nationalism, published a story on March 31 pointing out that the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Yogi Adityanath, okayed and attended a Hindu religious ceremony on March 25 along with dozens of others in violation of a nationwide lockdown. A day after the story ran, the UP government registered 2 FIRs—requests for information that might lead to future arrest—against The Wire’s editor, Siddharth Varadrajan. Varadrajan had misattributed a quote by another person associated with the event to Adityanath. For this single misquote Varadrajan was charged with five violations of four different laws, including transmission of obscene material and computerized identity theft.

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Varadrajan tweeted a correction and updated the original article to correctly attribute the quote, but the charges against him remain. On April 10th, the UP government sent policemen to his home in Delhi (at least 2 of whom were not wearing masks, according to his wife, Nandini Sundar) to summon him to appear physically in court in Ayodhya, 427 miles away. They later allowed him to respond to the charges over email.

Two weeks later, some of the media turned its Islamophobic gaze on Mumbai. On April 14, 2,000 people gathered at a Mumbai train station—a dangerous violation of the lockdown. The throng was initially identified as migrant workers who believed special trains had been organized to take them to their home states from the camps in Mumbai where they are living while they are unable to work. But there were no such trains.

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Arnab Goswami, one of India’s best-known news anchors, focused early coverage of the incident on the fact that there was a mosque near the gathering. A report on ABP News, a prominent network, questioned whether the group were migrants at all, suggesting that they had been exhorted by Muslim leaders to gather at the station to spread Coronavirus. The network later corrected its coverage and confirmed that the people were indeed migrants trying to find a way home. They had been misled about the trains, and Mumbai’s police force set out to find the perpetrators.

The police arrested eleven people, including one of ABP News’ own correspondents, Rahul Kulkarni, not for unsubstantiated accusations against Muslim leaders, but for circulating an internal railway document that he claimed suggested special trains were being organized to transport stranded migrant workers back home. He has since been granted bail.

  • The police in Mumbai, where Modi’s BJP are not in power, are investigating Goswami for alleged slander against an opposition leader. On May 3rd, they filed an FIR against him for allegedly “trying to disturb communal harmony” for his coverage of the incident in Mumbai.
  • A few days later, Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terrorism law, for purportedly “anti-national social media posts.” An example the police cited was a picture Zahra tweeted out from a December 2019 article in The New Humanitarian titled “Kashmir’s mental health crisis goes untreated as clampdown continues,” depicting the widow of a man who was shot by the Indian army.
  • On April 20th, despite backlash against the use of UAPA to arrest Zahra, the same police force filed an FIR in Kashmir against The Hindu reporter Peerzada Ashiq for “fake news,” citing a story that was later shown to be incorrect.
  • Though the story did contain false information, to file an FIR against its author seemed disproportionate to the Editors Guild of India, an organization created to protect press freedom and comprised of some of the nation’s foremost journalists. The Guild also condemned the use of UAPA against Zahra. “Its only purpose can be to strike terror into journalists.” they wrote. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Kashmir Press Club echoed the Guild’s sentiments.
  • The government has also questioned student activists and other journalists under UAPA recently.

At a time of polarization within the Indian media over how to cover the government and whether to indulge Islamophobia, and as the Indian government reaches across its armoury of weapons to use against the press, Facebook might soon find it needs an updated set of Community Standards to engage with these issues.

In October 2019 the Tow Center released research on political parties’ use of WhatsApp during the 2019 General Election campaign. We hope to continue our research on platforms in India and investigate what Facebook’s “entry” into the Indian telecom market might mean for Indian journalism.

—Ishaan Jhaveri, senior research fellow


An update on how platforms and publishers are reacting to the pandemic

Amid continuing layoffs and cutbacks, some news outlets have found temporary relief through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which grants up to $10 million to small businesses that are struggling during the pandemic. A wide range of publishers have received funding from the program, including daily newspapers like The Seattle Times, legacy publications like Harper’s magazine, and online publishers like Bustle Media Group, which owns properties including Bustle, Elite Daily, and the recently relaunched Nylon. Notably, BMG shut down The Outline just one month ago, a year after acquiring it.

Some newspapers hardest hit by pandemic-related cost-cutting are not eligible for the loans because they’re owned by chains like Gannett, Tribune, and McClatchy. Meanwhile, venture-backed political news site Axios qualified for a loan of almost $5 million, which it later returned, citing an alternative source of capital and noting that “the program has become much more politically polarized since its inception.”

Elsewhere, the New York Post laid off 20 staffers “to ensure the stability and long-term sustainability of our brands,” according to a statement provided by a Post spokesperson to The Daily Beast. The layoffs are accompanied by a temporary hiring freeze and severe cuts to freelance budgets. Women-focused newsletter startup The Skimm is also reportedly laying off 20% of its staff of about 130.

READ: The problem of seeing a pandemic through a partisan lens

From Vox Media to the Los Angeles Times, media unions have been instrumental in negotiating better deals for journalists and media workers affected by pandemic-related cutbacks. However, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith argued that these unions’ efforts would be better spent fighting tech companies like Facebook and Google rather than the management of the already-struggling media companies that employ them. Recounting his former role at editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, he writes,

At BuzzFeed last year, I tried to persuade both my skeptical management colleagues and (in a secret meeting I wasn’t supposed to be having) skeptical union leaders that we should together confront the forces weakening our industry—rather than focus solely on adversarial bargaining issues. The unions could use their big new voice—and their members’ outsize presence on social media—to fight for the changes that would reorder the whole industry. In particular, they could join a global push to retake ground from Facebook and Google, which have sucked up much of the advertising revenue that used to pay journalists’ salaries.

As Smith discloses elsewhere in the piece, he still retains stock options in BuzzFeed. Commenting on this conflict of interest, BuzzFeed tech writer Katie Notopoulos tweeted, “This is like the NYTimes letting Joe Exotic report on Carole Baskin as long as he includes a small disclaimer he no longer owns the GW Zoo,” referencing the Netflix series Tiger King.

In other news reported by Smith, Heath Freeman, president of the hedge fund Alden Capital, is circulating a letter to other newspaper owners suggesting a campaign to push Google and Facebook to pay them fees.” Alden Capital, which Vanity Fair recently called “the hedge fund vampire that bleeds newspapers dry,” is known for purchasing local newspapers and aggressively laying off reporters and editors to squeeze out their last remaining profits. In his letter, Freeman writes,

Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple News and other online aggregators make billions of dollars annually from original, compelling content that our reporters, photographers, and editors create day after day, hour after hour… Clearly, content-usage fees are an appropriate and reasonable way to help ensure newspapers exist to provide communities across the country with robust high-quality local journalism.

We at Tow are reminded of one of our favorite pieces of digital journalism.


Other stories of note

  • Sinclair Broadcasting Group is spreading misinformation and right-wing talking points about COVID-19 through local news stations across the country. America This Week, hosted by Trump ally and personal friend Eric Bolling, has promoted the “unproven theory that coronavirus was accidentally released from a Chinese lab, and has even gone so far as to suggest that the Chinese scientists genetically engineered the virus to be more deadly.” The show airs “on dozens of Sinclair-owned or -operated local news stations on weekends, and streams on Sinclair station websites.” Bolling was fired from Fox News in 2017 for sending explicit photos to work colleagues.
  • EU regulator Margrethe Vestager spoke to the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner about the tension between public health and privacy: “[Y]ou can do so many things with technology that are not invasive of your privacy. I think that, very often, when people say it’s only doable in one way, it’s because they want the data for their own purposes.”
  • According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Election News Pathways project, “a solid majority of Americans say the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way journalists report the news, but they are far less certain about how the outbreak is affecting news organizations’ bottom lines.”
  • A week after being laid off from Bloomington’s Gannett-owned Herald-Times, 54-year-old Rich Jackson moved to a Motel 6. His new blog is called The Homeless Editor. He told The New York Times that he is hoping to stay in journalism: “There’s something about being in a newsroom where I feel like I’m wrapped in a warm quilt… It’s where my home is.”

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George Civeris and Ishaan Jhaveri work at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School.

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