Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose combative relationship with the press has been likened to President Donald Trump's, has given no press conferences since taking office in 2014. The pandemic has upped the pressure on media, as officials try to keep a tight lid on information, using government TV and social media channels to carry live national addresses, provide policy information and question the credibility of critical news reports.
Since March 24, India's 1.3 billion people have been living under one of the world's strictest stay-at-home orders, mostly kept indoors except to pick up food and other necessities. Essential workers including hospital staff, pharmacists, grocers and journalists have been exempt.
Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, editor of a local news site in Coimbatore, a city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, was detained Tuesday under India’s 19th-century Epidemic Diseases Act for reporting that trainee doctors were going hungry and that employees of government ration shops were stealing food.
Earlier this month, a Coimbatore city official accused Pandian of making “false” reports that could incite health and food distribution employees to strike, imperiling the Tamil Nadu state government’s COVID response, according to a police report reviewed by The Associated Press.
Pandian is charged with “disobeying regulations during a pandemic.” He faces up to three years in prison if convicted. Such incidents have grown more common, making it harder and more dangerous for journalists to engage in critical reporting, media observers say.
“The Indian government has enacted legal frameworks that give them sweeping powers and permit criminal prosecution for anything they deem to be fake news,” said Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The news industry in India, the world’s largest democracy, has flourished since its independence from Britain in 1947, growing to 500 TV news channels, thousands of newspapers and dozens of feisty start-ups.
India's Information and Broadcasting Ministry spokesman Saurab Singh said the government's efforts to crack down on misinformation do not preclude journalists from reporting on the consequences of the lockdown.
But the financial fallout from the pandemic, coupled with pressure on publishers to censor or change published content, has been enormous. Some of India's preeminent news organizations, including The Times Group, publisher of The Times of India, one of the world's most widely read English-language newspapers, have cut staff or pages.
In late March, authorities in Uttar Pradesh state served Vijay Vineet, a news editor for the Hindi-language Jansandesh Times newspaper, with a notice saying they planned to charge him for allegedly spreading false news at a “sensitive time.”
Vineet reported a story about children in India’s Dalit community, the lowest in India’s Hindu caste system, having to survive on grass grown for cattle because their parents couldn’t work during the lockdown.
Authorities in Varanasi, Modi’s parliamentary constituency, accused Vineet of trying to discredit the state government, which maintains that none of its 200 million residents are going hungry. It ordered him to publish a correction or face legal action. Instead, he published a followup story quoting doctors describing the nutritional deficiencies of grass. No legal action followed.
In March, Siddharth Varadarajan was summoned to a police hearing in Uttar Pradesh after The Wire, the online news site he edits, published a report saying the state’s chief minister had attended a religious ceremony the day India’s lockdown began, violating the ban on religious gatherings.
The summons, Varadarajan said, reflected India's “authoritarian approach” to the news. In late March, the federal government complained to the Supreme Court that “fake news” had prompted millions of daily wage workers to flee cities on foot, heading to their home villages after the lockdown was announced. The Court just ordered journalists to include the government’s side of every pandemic story.
Still, all of this antagonism puts the industry in an awkward position when seeking help from the institution that normally supplies a large share of its revenues, said Varadarajan. The Indian Newspaper Society estimates the industry could lose $2 billion over the next six months.It has asked the government to pay a 50% premium on ads. The News Broadcaster Association has also asked for help.
One of the news organizations forced to scale back was The Quint. The online daily furloughed 50% of its newsroom staff earlier this month and whittled away its coverage to just the pandemic, the economy, the plight of migrant workers and to fact-checks, 95 of 100 of which are related to the virus.
The financial pressures coupled with a censorious government threaten journalists' leeway to report beyond the official line, since those who criticize the government run the risk of being starved of funds, or of prosecution.
“The government doesn’t like any sunshine on their deficiencies in policies and governance," said Varadarajan. “There is a pattern of intimidation and harassment by the government to ensure that only filtered stenography comes out."
—- Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma contributed to this report.