Journalists have been at the forefront of covering the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. They have paid a heavy price due to the virus.
According to a study done by the Delhi-based Institute of Perception Studies, as many as 101 journalists have died due to COVID-19 since January 2021, 52 in April alone. Uttar Pradesh has seen the most number of deaths, followed by Telangana and Maharashtra. This implies, on average, about two journalists died every day last month.
India is among the top three countries globally when it comes to deaths of journalists due to COVID-19, a Geneva-based media rights body has found.
Unlike doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and other frontline workers, journalists were not in the Phase-1 vaccination drive. While most frontline workers got their first jabs, journalists were still reporting on the ground unprotected from the virus.
In the world’s largest democracy, journalists maintain the social fabric of society. Amidst a pandemic, they report on the ground from the megacities where the virus has uprooted the very rubric of life and rural areas where the virus has slowly spread.
Photo journalist Arun Sharma shared this video from Kanpur. 476 funerals in one day at the Kanpur crematorium pic.twitter.com/CKyZBjw3fE
— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) April 24, 2021
They have covered everything from the burning of funeral pyres in crematoriums to the vast lines outside vaccine centres. They have also bravely monitored the situation in hospitals, where people are dying because of not getting beds or oxygen supply.
Democracies require that journalists be named essential workers. They have strived to enhance the accountability of the government during the pandemic and ensured the protection of freedom of expression, which is the basic tenet of the constitution. Honest and truthful journalism forms the fourth pillar of democracy to keep other pillars in check.
However, many state governments have announced journalists as essential workers. MK Stalin, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, declared media persons as frontline workers. Stalin said that the media persons would receive the same entitlements and support provided to frontline workers.
West Bengal, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Uttarakhand are the other states that announced journalists as frontline workers and eligible for COVID-19 vaccine preference.
Odisha went a step further. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik declared working journalists of the state as frontline COVID warriors for providing seamless news feed. He announced an amount of ₹15 lakh for the next of kin of journalists who die of COVID-19 while performing their duty.
In April, the Editors Guild of India asked the central government to include journalists as frontline workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on a priority basis. The Editors Guild’s statement said that news organisations had been relentlessly covering the pandemic, elections and other current affairs to ensure that the flow of news and information to readers continues unabated.
“News media is included in essential services. Therefore, it will only be fair that journalists be given this cover of protection, especially in the face of the number of infected rising to astronomical levels,” read the statement.
The union government is silent because they are scared of dissent.
The media has been working tirelessly to expose the actual death count of the pandemic that has been hidden or ignored, which they say is 3–5 times more than the reported numbers. A new report has claimed that the official number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in India till 5 May, 2021, was 2,21,181, which could be a third of the actual number due to under-reporting.
According to a new analysis released by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the actual number could have been as high as 6,54,395.
The local media has also proven its calibre. Local Gujarati newspapers published a report using death certificates issued by state authorities between 1 March and 10 May to claim that the state has witnessed an excess of 61,000 deaths compared to the same time last year.
At many junctures, the media has faced backlash and criticism from governmental institutions for reporting the truth. Recently, a bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud was hearing the poll panel’s plea challenging the Madras HCs “murder charges” remark. The Madras High Court had rebuked the Election Commission of India for allowing political rallies amidst a deadly second wave of Covid-19.
The HC observed that the institution was solely responsible for the second wave of Covid-19. “Election Commission officers should be booked on murder charges.” The EC had demanded that media should not be allowed to report on oral observations of the court.
Adding to this, what would be a dreadful sight ordinarily only exposed the true extent of the pandemic. When rains earlier this month exposed more than 2,000 corpses of COVID-19 infected victims on the banks of Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, the media reported these “mass-shallow graves” bravely.
One can only imagine the utter despair and remorse the journalists reporting this would have felt. Such horrific scenes can hamper anybody’s mental health.
Not only this. The media has also boosted health information campaigns and has tried to curb misinformation regarding COVID-19. Doctors, through the media, have dispelled many myths related to COVID-19 vaccines.
When the Ministry of Health contradicted the use of the vaccine in pregnant females considering the lack of studies on this, doctors spread awareness through the media that since pregnancy with Covid was a very high-risk condition, it was recommended that the benefit of the vaccine be extended to pregnant females as well.
The Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) has also advised that all pregnant females get vaccinated as soon as possible. When myths were being spread about vaccines affecting women’s fertility and menstruation, the media reported all such claims to be false, only creating more vaccine hesitancy.
Moreover, fake viral trends were going on about increasing oxygenation. The media reported a camphor message going viral on social media for several days as reports of an oxygen crisis poured in from different parts of the country. There was no scientific evidence to back this claim.
The media also debunked the baseless claim of BJP MP Pragya Thakur when she said she takes cow urine every day. “If we have desi gau mutra (urine from an indigenous cow) every day, then it cures lung infection from Covid. I am in deep pain, but I take cow urine every day. So now, I don’t have to take any medicine against corona, and I don’t have corona,” Pragya Thakur is heard telling a party gathering.
“Cow urine is a life-saver,” says Thakur. The Indian Medical Association has said there is no scientific evidence that cow dung or urine helps with the treatment or prevention of Covid.
When the media has played so many roles, it is high-time journalists are classified as essential workers. But we can only hope.
India has been listed under countries considered “bad” for journalism. According to Reporters Without Borders, it is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, which published its 2021 World Press Freedom Index recently.