India's Worst COVID Outbreak Yet Forces Journalists to Criticize Modi Leadership

Jun 1, 2021
Originally published on June 8, 2021 7:08 am

Updated June 7, 2021 at 5:00 PM ET

In the early months of India's coronavirus pandemic, Manisha Pande recalls watching the evening news tell the public to go outside and bang pots and pans in solidarity with healthcare workers. She says that the energy was very "we're going to fight this thing together," encouraged by Prime Minister Narenda Modi.

Pande is the executive editor of the New Delhi-based independent news publication Newslaundry, which reports on the Indian media. She says that, oddly enough, mainstream news coverage last year seemed more often like a celebration than a reckoning with the global crisis. During the first wave of the coronavirus, Pande felt the news media failed to represent the devastation of the pandemic, largely because Prime Minister Modi's administration has been known to threaten publications and networks that criticize his government.

Yet, when the worst outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic hit India, local news coverage appeared to change.

"What's really happened is that the virus has really hit it's become very difficult for journalists to ignore what's happening," Pande says. Her team at Newslaundry recently lost a colleague, and Pande says she doesn't know anyone who hasn't been touched by a loss related to the virus.

Yet the government continues to underreport the death count, which is currently said to be over 300,000, but believed to be significantly higher. As a result, Pande says, news organizations have started taking matters into their own hands and documented their own death counts.

For example, a major paper called Dainik Bhaskar sent reporters to count dead bodies seen floating in the Ganges River. A Gujarati newspaper, Sandesh, has been visiting cremation grounds, counting body bags and pyres and documenting death counts that far outnumber the local government's reports. (On April 16, the paper counted 200 dead in a locality that only reported 25 deaths.)

"The standard of reporting was missing in the first wave," Pande says. But since then, journalists have made efforts to hold officials accountable.

"If you look at primetime debates, I think a lot of discussion has started to question the Modi government on the vaccine mismanagement or why we weren't prepared enough for the second wave," she says, "because we had enough time."

But holding the Modi government accountable can threaten these outlets' survival. Government advertising is a major source of revenue for news organizations in India, especially as other financial streams dried up in the pandemic-related economic downturn. And, as Pande points out, many of India's major news organizations are involved in other businesses like real estate and telecommunications, which means they are reliant on favorable government regulation.

Pande herself has worked for a major Indian newspaper under the current administration. "We had very clear instructions to be pro-Modi," she says.

Not only is criticizing the government bad business, but it can be dangerous, too. Last month, Reporters Without Borders' latest World Press Freedom Index ranked India 142 out of 180 countries, deeming it one of the most dangerous countries to work as a journalist. The report says that since Modi's reelection in 2019, "pressure has increased on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government's line."

Pande also points out that Modi does not maintain a relationship with the media: He has never held a press conference during his seven years in office. Instead, Modi uses Twitter and his monthly radio show to communicate directly with the public. Modi's unwillingness to hold press conferences "is especially problematic during the pandemic," Pande says, "because you don't have briefings where we are being told official numbers.".

While much of the Indian media has become more critical of the government despite the country's hostile environment, Pande says she can't rest her hopes on this kind of accountability lasting. She thinks the changing tide will turn back when public outrage settles.

"If you look at how media propaganda works, it's a slow drip thing," she says.

"So even if you're angry and you've seen loss around you and you've seen the government really bungled [managing the pandemic] see the media constantly making excuses for the government," she continues. "It's very hard to sustain that anger, or to channel that anger in a way that results in accountability."

Pande worries that especially as the Indian economy reels from the pandemic, news organizations will become even more reliant on government advertising. "The more this dependence grows, the more it will hamper the media's ability to question governments freely and fiercely." But she's hopeful that publications like hers that rely on a subscription model rather than paid advertising can move the needle on independent journalism in India, which she says must remain focused on serving as a public good.

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In India, many journalists are demanding more transparency from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. Some are focusing their reporting on holding the government accountable, for example, pursuing the truth of the country's death toll by sitting outside hospitals to count body bags. The official number of dead is just more than 300,000, but the real toll is likely much higher. We spoke with Manisha Pande, who's been tracking the shift in many Indian media outlets' coverage. She's the executive editor of Newslaundry, an independent outlet that reports on the Indian media. Pande says she first noticed the change when the second wave hit, especially as it killed more journalists.

MANISHA PANDE: The virus has really hit newsrooms. Newslaundry - you know, we ourselves have lost a colleague to the virus. And in fact, one of the very pro-government anchor works for a news channel which is sort of pro-Modi - he lost his life. So what's happened, I think, in newsrooms is it's become too difficult to ignore what's happening because it's hitting you personally.

CORNISH: So as a result, what does that look like on the ground? What other kinds of reporting are we seeing with this shift?

PANDE: So you've had journalists hit the ground and do this really macabre job of comparing official records of how many people have died versus how many people have been burnt in crematoriums or being buried in burial grounds. You've had journalists go to hospitals and see how health infrastructure is crumbling. This kind of reporting was missing in the first week.

If you look at primetime debates, I think a lot of discussion has started to question the Modi government on, you know, the vaccine mismanagement or why we weren't prepared enough for the second wave because we had enough time. And so you've had debates also veering towards questioning the government rather than the first wave, where we were mostly just celebrating and saying, we must support Modi.

CORNISH: What's been the response from the Modi government? Obviously, he has his own literal microphone, so to speak, right? Like, he has a show and...

PANDE: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Can broadcast to Indians himself directly. But I know this is an administration that has used tactics to suppress the media in the past. So what is this looking like in this environment?

PANDE: So one of the key features of this government has been that they haven't given us a press conference since the time that they've come to power. Modi has not taken a single press conference. Now, this is especially problematic during the pandemic because you don't have daily briefings where we are being told official numbers and stuff like that.

And I think the response from Modi government is really not very different from response from any criticism. It's to deflect, or it's to blame journalists and say that, OK, these guys are just here to, you know, talk about everything that's wrong. They're not going to be talking about anything that's good. And I think even though Modi may not speak himself, a lot of his ministers would launch Twitter campaigns against journalists, smear campaigns against journalists, saying that they're - you know, they're propagandists or they've been paid by the opposition to run these stories. So it's mostly to attack than really listen to what the media's saying.

CORNISH: You've talked to us about sort of the composition of Indian newsrooms - right? - that may be dominated by upper-class Hindu men that these media companies are often businesses that include, like, shipping or radio or construction. And so they want to stay on the government's good side. So do you think this change in this moment can last beyond the pandemic in terms of being really critical of the government?

PANDE: No. I think if you look at the news media space, it is mostly the independent news channels or news portals. These are mostly websites that are demanding accountability. You have an opposition which is pretty weak right now. Frankly, I'm not very - I can't offer you an optimistic answer for this because it is true that one of the key ways through which you can question the government or hold the government accountable is through the media, through the mainstream media. And it isn't doing its job.

CORNISH: As a result, is - when you look at public polling, is the public basically on the side of the Modi government right now?

PANDE: No, guaranteed no because things are really bad. And, you know, there isn't a family that hasn't lost someone or doesn't know someone who's lost someone. So currently the mood is very angry. But if you look at how media propaganda works, you know, it's a slow drip thing, which even today will - you know, you have a lot of debates blaming China. You know, this was biowarfare against India. And what would we do about it? Poor Modi - he's trying hard, but this is a war.

So, you know, you have most of these channels deflecting your attention on a daily basis. So even if you're angry and you've seen loss around you and you've seen the government really bungle it but you have a media which is one of the main instruments through which you make informed choices in a democracy, you see the media, and you see the media constantly making excuses for the government. It's very hard to sustain that anger or to channel that anger in a way that results in accountability. So that - I don't see that happening. And that's primarily because the media is either deflecting your attention from what's important or blaming other people or creating excuses for the government.

CORNISH: Manisha Pande, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PANDE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.