COVID-struck India a horror picture of ground realities

SILENT STRUGGLE: A senior citizen receives oxygen inside a car in New Delhi (AP photo)

May 3rd (the World Press Freedom Day) this year is of particular significance to India, considering that the media coverage of COVID has come under scanner. A section of Indian citizens feel the Press has overstepped its fundamental freedom in reporting the horror of the pandemic and the neglect the country is battling with. They echo the Indian government’s outburst and “foul” cry that the reports are biased and one-sided, downright “malicious and slanderous” and cause of “panic”.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, in his virtual meeting with Indian envoys across the world on April 30th, “conveyed that the ‘one-sided’ narrative in the international media must be countered”, reported The Indian Express.

There are also people who are offended with the “macabre” photos of the overloaded crematoriums burning 24x7 to keep up with the toll.

Really?

I wonder if the departed, a large majority of whom suffered an agonizing death while waiting in the queue for a puff of oxygen or hospital bed, would have been more offended by the photos or the sheer mismanagement.

We live in an empowered world, or at least in one that venerates empowerment. This is also the world where flow of information competes with the speed of sound, light and the written word. Where content is king, notwithstanding, more often than not these days, it becomes a slave in the hands of the propagandists and the agenda-driven.

We live in a world where the likes of Paul Reuter, William Cronkite and Seymour Hersh are not the only ones entrusted with the responsibility of bringing The News to the world. There are (were) also Gauri Lankesh, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, Sagal Salad Osman, Daniel Pearl and others, who would have had revealed more had they not been murdered.

Add to them every individual/stringer, in the remotest corners of the world, feeding the fact-gathering machinery, be it in print, on TV or online. Ipso facto, the onus on governments and world leaders to not be caught on the wrong foot has magnified manifold.

Thus, in COVID-stricken India, why should journalists shy away from capturing what’s unfolding on the ground? British ethical hacker and security expert Jacob Riggs says: “No custodian of the truth should have to fear their deliverance of the facts.” The Press stands vindicated.

Born in India and having been an Indian journalist once, I cringe while reading Jefferson Fellow and award-winning journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury: “… it is that (Indian) media’s Pavlovian obeisance to power that helped the build-up of this (COVID) epic tragedy. A media trained to amplify the ruling party uncritically failed to hold it to account when there was time, and force real action. All that has happened — the collapsing healthcare system, the mountains of corpses, the nationwide hunt for oxygen and the scramble for a piece of earth to give the dead the dignity denied to them in life — is as much on the media as it is on the government.”

Being a fellow India-born and a journalist, the author must have shared my discomfiture even while writing what he did. But then, an important part of exercising press right/freedom is to introspect.

Death does not play favourites and Indian journalists haven’t been spared. Many former colleagues have been swept away by the pandemic death-flood. To be fair, the overworked Indian journalist is racing against time today, exercising his/her proximity to the powers that be, and influence, in helping the sick access required healthcare.

And their fight is heart-rending. Journalist Dinakar Peri of The Hindu tweeted last week: “Almost 2 weeks n situation seems to be only getting worse. All leads for beds, O2, ICU, ambulance, Remdesivir are just drying up. Hardly got any positive leads last 2dys. But still no collective effort… When will the supplies coming reach the ground!

Forbes contributor Andy Meek writes: “… while they (the journalists) gave me a just-the-facts summation of what’s happening there, those details cannot hide the fact that a tragically high number of journalists themselves are also succumbing to COVID-19 while trying to document what the country is experiencing. And that reality is yet another piece of evidence revealing how badly the leadership at all levels is failing.”

Peri’s tweet indicates another aspect of Press freedom — to dare and go to places where the common man generally does not have access, connect and retrieve for him. While speaking to former colleagues in the media in India I find there are many who haven’t slept beyond four hours at a stretch for more than a month. They are racing against time, working from home, feeding the unending demand of COVID updates from their editors, most often tending to family members down with the virus (some are even mourning the deaths of parents, children, spouses, siblings or relatives), at the same time, attending frantic and desperate calls for leads to hospital beds, medication, oxygen, plasma etc.

Hats off!

India devastated by COVID is a two-billion strong volunteering community today, where the concept of selfless service without any hopes for benefits has taken over where all else failed. Everyone and anyone who has access to information and aid is rushing to take care of the afflicted.

The India media is one of them. A section of them at least.

World Press Freedom Day 2021’s theme, ‘Information as a Public Good’, becomes all the more pertinent in the context of India media. The theme highlights the role of journalists in producing and disseminating “verified and reliable information” by tackling misinformation and other harmful content. Closely linked to this is NOT to turn a blind eye and meander away from that which is against the common good and unflattering for the powers that be. In unravelling the starkness of the chaos, the neglect that endangered the nation, the World Press is avoiding just that, at the risk of horrifying and chilling us to the bone.

But that’s how you ensure a problem is acknowledged, appeal to mankind’s collective moral responsibility, don’t you?