Journalists in India, like essential service providers, are fighting a three-front battle: the COVID-19 outbreak, unforeseen layoffs, and political pressure. Over 50 journalists in India’s Mumbai city tested positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) recently.
In the absence of any health or job security from the government, the news has jolted media professionals reporting from ground in the country.
“Why not journalists? Media professionals are also risking their lives, why should they be excluded from the ‘COVID-19 Warrior’ list? Media professionals have no job guarantee, no pension and at the time of this pandemic there are a number of retrenchments and massive salary cuts. It's totally inhuman”, the vice president of India’s Press Association, Shishir Soni, tells Sputnik.
Soni highlighted the initiative of the state government of Odisha, where they announced financial aid of $65,000 (INR 5,000,000) and the honour of “martyr” for healthcare workers if they lose their lives to COVID-19 while treating patients.
The media fraternity in Mumbai also reached out to Maharashtra's state chief, Uddhav Thackrey, asking for personal protective equipment for media professionals in the field.
In a series of tweets, the Mumbai Press Club urged the government to provide insurance facilities to media professionals as they are also at a high risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus.
Dear Uddhavji Thackeray,— Mumbai Press Club (@mumbaipressclub) April 20, 2020
It is with dismay and shock that we have learnt that as many as 53 Mumbai-based journalists, many of whom are our members, have tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.
Most media houses have shut their offices and have not provided any protective gear, or special insurance to these frontline personnel. However, they continue to demand reports and visuals and expect the journalists to move around the city risking life and limb.— Mumbai Press Club (@mumbaipressclub) April 20, 2020
Risk of Losing Jobs Looms Large
While announcing a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while apprehending its impact on companies, said that organisations must not fire people or cut their salaries in this difficult time.
However, his calls were not been heard, as last week an entire team of Times of India's Sunday Magazine was laid off overnight.
Sputnik reached out to the senior assistant editor of the laid-off team for a comment, but she declined, saying “it’s not the right time”.
Job loss : Entire team of Sunday magazine, Times of India (TOI) asked to leave. 🤦♂️— Gaurav Gautam (@GauravNagaon) April 13, 2020
Sr. Asst. Editor of TOI, Nona Walia, called by boss Poonam Singh. Sacked after 24 years from a company that she served for more than two decades. 😥@nonawalia @AshokPradhanTOI @bhavikajTOI
In such circumstances, journalists from other media organisations are reaching out to one another enquiring about job openings.
Concerned about the plight of journalists, Manish Tewari, former minister of information and broadcasting, has urged Prime Minister Modi to come up with a plan for struggling media professionals in the nation.
Contagion of people being laid off across sectors can’t be allowed to spread.— Manish Tewari (@ManishTewari) April 14, 2020
When you address us at 10 AM hope there is a plan.@narendramodi
Tell media houses not to fire employees: Congress’ Manish Tewari urges I&B minister Javadekar https://t.co/yOx03qkqYE via @ThePrintIndia
Lockdown Doesn’t Stop Legal Matters
As reporting facts remains a challenge amid the lockdown, journalists are also facing legal troubles for stories which did not seem to go well with politics.
Siddharth Varadarajan, who is the co-founder of digital news medium “The Wire”, was booked for running a story on Uttar Pradesh state chief Yogi Adityanath violating the lockdown to attend a religious event.
Similarly, a Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra has been booked under the strict Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for "glorifying anti-national sentiments" on her social media accounts.
Indian journalists have claimed that such instances are “a direct attack on freedom of the media”. Congress leader Shashi Tharoor also expressed concern over the exploitation of bills and political powers that prevail in India.
3.5K jurists, academics, actors artists&writers expressed shock at the action of UP police against news portal The Wire&its Editor @svaradarajan for an “entirely factual story” on COVID-19 &religious events. This is a direct attack on freedom of the media https://t.co/MIWPZhuGH9— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) April 15, 2020
“Police action by UP Govt– ruled by the same political party that runs the Central govt – against The Wire and its founding editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, shows how far-reaching the destructive stabs at democracy have become in India.”— Arfa Khanum Sherwani (@khanumarfa) April 15, 2020
~Amartya Sen https://t.co/yBdzHfztXU
I objected to the introduction of UAPA in the Lok Sabha because I feared it lent itself to misuse. The FIR against J&K journalist Masrat Zahra for 'anti-national' posts is another instance of the Govt abusing UAPA to curb dissident voices. #ScrapUAPA https://t.co/LcIPmEP8uX— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) April 20, 2020
Few images by Masrat Zahra.— Darab Farooqui दाराब फारूक़ी داراب فاروقی (@darab_farooqui) April 20, 2020
She shows the world cruelty of the power, misery, death and pain.
She is arrested for spreading negitivity because she tells the truth. #IStandWithMasratZahra pic.twitter.com/pWyK2cFj8a
@masrat_zahra a young Kashmiri photojournalist and one of the few women in this field in #Kashmir, has been #arrested by #police under a law broadly used to stifle dissent. Her journalism has been. I stand in solidarity with her.#freemasratzahra #freedomofspeech#Kashmir#india pic.twitter.com/Or5F4Ivwq1— Mir Suhail (@mirsuhail) April 20, 2020
The Editors Guild of India – which is a “non-partisan association of editorial leaders in India” – has also urged the government for strict action against physical assaults on journalists who are covering the coronavirus situation on the ground.
The Editors Guild of India has issued a statement pic.twitter.com/aJVpKT7Ea4— Editors Guild of India (@IndEditorsGuild) March 26, 2020
While the government has not given any concrete answers to the media community, Arvind Kejriwal, the chief of India’s national capital, has noted that media professionals will be tested for COVID-19 in Delhi.