Journalism in the time of COVID

Why Indian TV anchors and reporters need to read up what Article 51A (h) of the Constitution stands for

Journalism in the time of COVID

Campaign for Ethical Media Reporting, a Bangalore-based group of activists, parents, lawyers, and academicians who are working towards making media more accountable to journalistic standards, ethics and principles, has put out a statement against the communalisation of the #CoronaVirus outbreak by sections of the media.

“The approach to a global pandemic such as COVID-19 has to be based on a global mobilization of resources and through a spirit of cooperation as the virus does not recognize national boundaries or boundaries of ethnicity or religion. What has been disturbing in the Indian context is that in recent reporting, the media seems to have forgotten this basic scientific fact- viruses have no religion.

“This disturbing trend emerged, following the increase of COVID-19 positive cases following the religious gathering in Delhi – hosted by Tablighi Jamaat on 13-14 March 2020. This health emergency was unfortunately given a communal color in the English and Kannada media.

“Some sections of the media took to labeling the entire community as ‘corona criminals’ propagating a ‘corona jihad’, and laying the blame for the entire pandemic at the doorstep of the Muslim community. There were also wild and baseless allegations by news anchors and politicians that the virus is being spread on purpose to defeat the lockdown. All of this has given a dangerous communal color to the reporting of the pandemic.

“The fact that that this message has been repeated ad nauseam in the Kannada electronic media as well as by some English media channels has meant that a public already fearful, bewildered and confused by both the spread of the disease and the lockdown, is being misled that the virus has a religion and it is being used as an instrument of warfare against India.

“This cynical media discourse which has long since abandoned any notion of media ethics gets further amplified by the virality of social media with irresponsible calls for social and economic boycott of the Muslim community. This has already hit the livelihoods of street vendors, restaurant owners and others in precarious circumstances.

“There is also a direct hit to human solidarity as some relief volunteers who are Muslim have been asked not to come anymore as they could transmit the virus. These calls for boycott took a disturbing turn when four family members of Zareen Taj, an activist with Swaraj Abhiyan, were attacked with cricket bats and grievously injured allegedly by members of a Hindu right-wing organisation at Dasarahalli in Bengaluru while distributing relief material amidst the COVID-19 lockdown.

“The calls for criminalisation of those who spread the virus can also drive people underground and hinder mass testing which the WHO has highlighted as a key strategy to mitigate the spread of the virus. The suicide of a man on 5 April, 2020 in Una district of Himachal Pradesh after villagers allegedly taunted him over the spread of corona virus post the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi shows the dangers that such hatred can cause.

The irresponsible media reporting has thus resulted in a potent cocktail with implications for factual reporting, scientific and epidemiological understanding of the disease, public health, human solidarity as well as the constitutional guarantee of the right to health of all persons.

“What is a grave causality in this irresponsible media reporting is what the Constitution in Article 51A (h) regards as the ‘fundamental duty of citizens’ to ‘develop the scientific temper’, as well as ‘humanism’. TV anchors who insist on linking the spread of COVID 19 to a religious community, ignore the science behind the spread.

“The calls for punishing the ‘corona criminals’ eschews the spirit of humanism. The calls for punishment of those infected by COVID-19 ignores the fact that those affected are patients not criminals, entitled to the guarantee of the right to health.

“The calls for social and economic boycott of the Muslim community is not only lacking in any health based rationale and devoid of any humanism but is also disruptive of social solidarity and social bonding.

“The kind of unscientific and hate filled propaganda threatens to overwhelm the public health messaging by the government of Karnataka. The chief minister of Karnataka has begun to belatedly address this issue when he said that ‘The Muslim community is cooperating and that nobody should speak a word against them. You can’t say that because of one small incident, the entire community is responsible and that ‘he would take action against such persons’.

“The statement by the Commissioner of Bangalore Police condemning the spread of hateful messages was also a welcome step in the right direction.

“In the states of Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the chief ministers have been prompt to strongly condemn the communalisation of the pandemic. The chief minister of Maharashtra tweeted about the ‘virus’ of ‘fake news and communal hatred’ which ‘is threatening social harmony’.

“The chief minister of Kerala said that the ‘corona virus is not going to look at a person’s religion before infecting them’. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu stated that ‘people should avoid giving it [COVID 19] a religious color’. The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh said that, ‘nobody should put the blame against any particular community’.

“The media needs to be highly vigilant during the period of lockdown as a lockdown is an extraordinary situation where usual community bonding are not allowed. Social distancing leads to a break in community solidarity. It is in such situations that suspicion and ideas of persecution by the other (caste, religion etc) become particularly volatile and inflammable. People are understandably annoyed and disturbed by the restrictions imposed by the lockdown. When media manufactures a community as a target, it contributes to making the targeted community extremely vulnerable to economic, physical, social and psychological distress.

“We request that the representatives of the people, electronic media and social media users desist from such highly biased reporting and blaming people who have tested positive. This can only detract from the fight against the Covid pandemic. If ever ‘fraternity’ was the need of the hour, it is in the context of our fight against COVID-19 .

“We wish our friends in the electronic media will heed this call and help to cultivate a scientific temper, humanism and a spirit of social solidarity. The only way the crisis posed by COVID-19 can be addressed is through the collective effort by an informed citizenry, responsible media and a responsive government. Any approach which bases itself on the stigmatization of a section of the population detract from our fight against COVID-19 and put the entire country at risk.”

By churumuri

Listen to a podcast with Dr Sylvia Karpagam and Mythreyi Krishnan of the Campaign for Ethical Media Reporting:

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