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In India, in times of Corona, it is even more difficult to be a journalist

The Indian media have been under pressure for a long time. The government is now using the corona crisis to further restrict freedom of the press.

Every day Lav Agarwal sits on the podium in front of the journalists and explains the Corona situation in the country to the Indians. Not the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not the Health Minister - they do not face the media, Modi has never done that in two terms. So there is Agarwal, a secretary from the Ministry of Health and Family, three steps below the Minister of Health on the organizational chart. In front of him is a handpicked group of journalists. Many have been excluded, they are now allowed to send in questions about the Covid 19 crisis via Whatsapp, and Agarwal then answers a few. But these are never the critical questions.

During the Corona crisis, what has been observed in India for a long time is accentuating: journalists have more difficult access to information, and critical media are coming under pressure.

"It is a terrible time to be a journalist in India," says Swati Chaturvedi. She writes for several Indian media and has revealed in a book how the ruling party BJP spreads false reports in the social networks and intimidates opponents. "Since then, I've been threatened with death and rape every day on social networks," she says on the phone. The government does not protect the journalists. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently disempowering the media, in the Corona crisis he would have to hold press conferences, answer questions and take away fear. He doesn't do any of that.

Do the doctors have enough equipment? Who exactly is being tested? A journalist posted her questions to the government on Twitter. Secretary Agarwal hadn't answered any of these at his corona press conference the day before.

Lack of money and layoffs

There are around 17,000 daily newspapers in India, 178 news channels and numerous publications on the Internet. Only a few express themselves critical of the government, many Hindi-language media report on government lines, as do the major English TV stations. The broadcaster NDTV dared to take a critical stance towards Prime Minister Modi, reporting in English and Hindi. Then advertising revenues began to decline: Indian media became dependent on government advertisements and commercials, these were no longer booked, and government-affiliated companies also withdrew advertisements. NDTV laid off around a quarter of its workforce in 2017. Last year, the English-language news portal "Scroll.in" cut almost half of the editorial team. And in the Corona crisis the situation worsened: The large independent newspaper “Indian Express” cut wages at the beginning of the month, maybe things will get worse, the CEO wrote to his employees.

In this environment, many media think twice about how they want to report on the course of the government. "There is self-censorship on a large scale," says journalist Chaturvedi. She used to work in the investigative team of the "Indian Express", she says that her stories from back then are no longer published today.

During the Corona crisis, the indirect pressure on journalists has become increasingly direct. Hours before Prime Minister Modi announced a nationwide curfew, he held a video conference with several publishers. He reminded them that we had to stick together during the crisis, the citizens wanted to be assured that the government was doing everything it could to cope with the situation. According to Modi's website, the media should use “positive communication” to prevent pessimism and panic.

The magazine “The Caravan” asked several participants after the video conference. Some replied that they were more likely not to publish a critical story at the moment. "Journalism in the time of Corona is as friendly with the government as always, and this article explains why," writes Vinod Jose on Whatsapp. He is editor-in-chief of “The Caravan”, his magazine has won awards worldwide, it remains critical because it can afford it: the owner family is wealthy.

Journalist Chaturvedi says: “Modi seems to be making suggestions to the media in the video conference. But it's more of a threat. "

Indeed, shortly after the curfew began, the government accused the media of stirring up panic among migrant workers with their reports, which was the only reason why all the people left to return to their villages on foot. The government turned to the highest court. She demanded that the media should no longer publish anything about the Corona crisis without first confirming with the state that what was published is correct. The court decided not to interfere with freedom of expression. But it instructed media workers to stick to the "official version".

There are already several charges pending by politicians against journalists who sharply criticized the government's corona course on social networks. India ranks 140th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders' media freedom ranking. At the beginning of March, two local TV stations in the southern state of Kerala should have been switched off for 48 hours without further ado. The stations had broadcast reports on the February riots in Delhi that broke out between Hindus and Muslims and the government disliked the reports. After protests, the ban was lifted again and the TV stations broadcast again.

New normal

“India is a semi-closed system, and every year it becomes more closed. It will be more difficult for journalists to do their duty, ”says Jose, editor-in-chief of“ The Caravan ”. But his magazine will continue to research if inconsistencies arise during the Corona crisis, for example if you have the feeling that the official case numbers are incorrect.

Swati Chaturvedi believes that the situation for journalists and the media will worsen after the Corona crisis and that the government is currently creating a new normal. "The freedom of the press in India is in danger," she says, and then again: "It is a terrible time to be a journalist in India."