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

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 tothreaten 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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Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Amy Isackson