Local and independent reporters have played an essential and often high-risk role in revealing the true scale of India’s CVOID-19 catastrophe while many in the mainstream media have preferred to parrot the government’s narrative, journalists Barkha Dhutt and Rana Ayyub said in an FCC webinar.
They spoke amid a spiralling death count from the virus in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been accused of downplaying the scale of the disaster while failing to provide essentials like oxygen to hospitals and vaccines to the population.
The government’s attempts to defend its response have been amplified by often compliant national media, the speakers said. Meanwhile, journalists reporting from hospitals and cremation sites have been branded “vultures” while Western coverage has been labelled anti-Indian and imperialistic.
“Most of the news channels are run by big investors, big industrialists who are craven and help Narendra Modi with his election campaigning, so you don’t expect them to speak truth to power”, said Ayyub, an investigative journalist and global opinions editor at The Washington Post.
As a result, grassroots reporting has been essential in telling the story, Dutt and Ayyub said in the webinar moderated by FCC First Vice President Eric Wishart.
Dutt, an opinion columnist with The Hindustan Times and The Washington Post whose father recently died of COVID-19, gave the example of images that emerged of bodies floating in Indian rivers as cremation and burial services became overwhelmed.
“These have come from people who are not famous journalists, who are just young stringers on the ground”, she said. “Despite the attempts to control big media, technology is liberating and anyone today with a phone and a spine is telling the stories that the world needs to see”.
“I want to acknowledge the work of really vulnerable reporters who do not have health insurance, have no organizational affiliation, these really extraordinary boots on the ground in our smaller towns and in our cities”.
At the same time, local journalists who dare to challenge local authorities live in fear of retribution.
Ayyub cited the example of a local journalist who sent her videos of 450 funerals in one day but refused to be quoted in an article she was writing for The Washington Post. “The chief minister of the state will make my life sad and miserable, and I will be thrown behind bars”, he told her.
Around 70 people describing themselves as “Concerned and Upset Indians” sent a joint letter to the FCC ahead of the event titled “Please Stop Providing Platform to Anti-Indians” and asking the club to cancel the discussion.
“Such people are completely biased and motivated”, it read, referring to the speakers.
Both Dutt and Ayyub, who have faced online violence including death and rape threats because of their coverage, said they were not surprised by the letter.
“What’s important to stress is that this is organized. Don’t think that this petition is a spontaneous reaction”, Dutt said. “There is now a clear attempt to deflect the scale and the enormity of what’s happening and create irrelevant side issues.”
“This takes us in a direction where we don’t have to talk about the fact that we are looking at a million more deaths by June, where you don’t have to talk about the fact that bodies are floating down the rivers of rural India”.
“We continue to be targeted for telling our stories, for doing our journalism, for going to cremation and burial grounds and showing you the pictures that have shaken the world”, Dutt said.
“We are being told we are vultures for feasting off the dead. Because we write for global media, we are being called anti-national. Whereas the true anti-nationalism we are seeing unfold is public relations between privileged over the lives of ordinary Indians”.
Ayyub, who spoke at the FCC’s 2019 journalism conference about the horrendous online violence she has faced, added: “This is how they shut independent voices, especially women journalists. You slut shame us all the time, you call us names, but you cannot silence us like that. So what better way to try to silence us than by calling us anti-Indian?”
Was there anything positive to take from the disaster?
“For the first time I see Indians united and not polarized by this Hindu-Muslim narrative” said Ayyub, who has set up a crowdfunding site to raise money for food and medical aid for the needy.
“They are united in helping each other out and amplifying each other’s voices, and I think Indians have now realized that this humanity will be the only savior at the end of the day”.
The full discussion can be watched below.