People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) (Maharashtra) released its report ‘The Double Siege: News Media in the Time of COVID-19’ on September 4, 2020, based on a discussion with Sevanti Ninan, media commentator and founder editor of The Hoot and the author of the report, and journalist Geeta Seshu. Columnist and author Rajni Bakshi moderated the discussion.
The report is the second in the series, ‘Lockdown and Civil Liberties – II’. It examines the manner in which freedom of the press in India is under siege: from without by the State and its thriving band of storm troopers and from within by the owners of private media who have cut loose from the rule of law and due process, rendering scores of journalists at the precipice of precarity.
The report said, ‘This seemingly relentless double assault, along with the withering away of vital judicial processes, has resulted in an unparalleled impasse for press freedom, in some ways more noxious than the dark days of the 1975-77 Emergency, but equally damaging to the people’s right to freedom of speech and expression’.
It details how journalists who did question the administration were arrested, faced criminal charges, or were intimidated. More than a hundred journalists across India have lost jobs or have faced wage cuts. The report said there was a crucial need for an informed and participative public to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath and to resist the shrinkage of space for dissent. In the discussion that followed, participants stressed the need to build networks amongst journalists, lawyers, and civil society to protect civil liberties.
Read the below excerpt from the report:
Conjuring consent in a post-factual, post-truth scenario
Freedom of the press is under siege: from without by the State and its thriving band of storm troopers and from within by the owners of private media who have cut loose from the rule of law and due process, rendering scores of journalists at the precipice of precarity.
This seemingly relentless double assault, along with the withering away of vital judicial processes, has resulted in an unparalleled impasse for press freedom, in some ways more noxious than the dark days of the 1975-77 Emergency, but equally damaging to the people’s right to freedom of speech and expression.
Information and transparency are key elements in any functioning democracy, more so during the current global socio-economic crisis. In the five months of a lockdown due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the cumulative failure of years of mis-governance was laid bare in full public view.
The Union Government, in keeping with its general information policy, has, however, opted for a “need to know” approach as far as COVID-19 is concerned, with the government itself deciding the contours of “need”. There is unaccountable silence on essential issues (the plight of migrant workers, for instance). Instead, garrulous trivialities and whimsical spectacles like the banging of plates have become the hallmark of this dispensation.
A largely compliant media, heavily dependent on State advertising, has become the unquestioning purveyor of ‘official’ information and of narrow nationalism. Prime time on television channels has replaced serious debate with rabid and dangerously inflammatory talk shows, ratcheting up of public opinion to divert and disguise serious issues. A case in point was the manner in which television anchors and reporters of prominent television channels competed with one another to cover the tragic death of hindi film actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
In marked contrast to this aggressive and unrelenting coverage, the media remained supine and failed to rigorously scrutinize government policies and actions on a range of issues, including environmental regulations; the PM-CARES Fund; the Galwan crisis; the domicile law in Kashmir; the prolonged economic crisis; the crisis of neglect in public health care; the questionable awarding of contracts to pharma companies for COVID-19 related drugs; the foisting of cases against victims and rights activists in connection with the Delhi violence and the precarious condition of prisoners in jails, including those accused in the Bhima-Koregaon cases.
Journalists who did question the administration were arrested, faced criminal charges or were intimidated. More than a hundred journalists across India have lost jobs or face wage cuts. The so-called powerful Fourth Estate has all but ignored the crackdown on journalists who have revealed administrative failure or remained criminally silent while field reporters are attacked. There is a collective failure of media organisations, including the statutory Press Council of India or self-regulatory authorities set up by broadcasting companies to respond effectively to these attacks.
The status of media freedom in India has been precarious for several years now, with the killing of journalists and increasingly vicious attacks, shrouded by near-total impunity. Since 2014, there have been more than 200 serious attacks on journalists in India, targeted for their investigative work. Not a single attack resulted in a conviction. In the latest attack, three journalists of Caravan magazine were beaten by a mob in North East Delhi on Aug 11. Till date, despite complaints submitted by the journalists, police have not even registered an FIR.
In April 2020, India ranked at No 142 in a yearly global ranking on press freedom by the international press freedom body, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). India slipped two places down in the ranking from the previous year, based on a series of indices including media independence, environment, self-censorship, transparency and legislative framework. News reports have emerged of the extent to which the cosy relationship between the ruling BJP and the social media network Facebook in India influenced electoral campaigns and censored dissenting voices.
The situation is further exacerbated by the State’s disregard for media freedom and complete indifference to the massive job losses in the media. This, combined with the lack of concern for the safety of journalists on the frontlines, has weakened and hollowed out the mechanisms for newsgathering. The casualty has been the media’s authority to hold the powers-that-be accountable.
The full report can be accessed here on the PUCL website.
Note: The other two reports in the series are ‘Imprisoned and Unsafe: Prisoners and the Pandemic‘, on prison conditions in Maharashtra, and ‘Broken Slates and Blank Screens – Education under a lockdown‘ on education in the times of Covid-19.
 Getting away with murder – A study on the killings of and attacks on journalists in India 2014-19, and justice delivery in these cases, Geeta Seshu and Urvashi Sarkar, Dec 2019, https://www.thakur-foundation.org/report-on-attacks-on-journalists-in-india-2014-2019.pdf
 ‘The Caravan’s journalists assaulted, sexually harassed in northeast Delhi’ , Aug 12, Caravan