India's Worst COVID Outbreak Yet Forces Journalists to Criticize Modi Audie Cornish talks with Manisha Pande of the Indian news outlet Newslaundry about how India's devastating second COVID-19 wave has changed local media's coverage of the crisis and the government.

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

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In India, many journalists are demanding more transparency from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. Some are focusing their reporting on holding the government accountable, for example, pursuing the truth of the country's death toll by sitting outside hospitals to count body bags. The official number of dead is just more than 300,000, but the real toll is likely much higher. We spoke with Manisha Pande, who's been tracking the shift in many Indian media outlets' coverage. She's the executive editor of Newslaundry, an independent outlet that reports on the Indian media. Pande says she first noticed the change when the second wave hit, especially as it killed more journalists.

MANISHA PANDE: The virus has really hit newsrooms. Newslaundry - you know, we ourselves have lost a colleague to the virus. And in fact, one of the very pro-government anchor works for a news channel which is sort of pro-Modi - he lost his life. So what's happened, I think, in newsrooms is it's become too difficult to ignore what's happening because it's hitting you personally.

CORNISH: So as a result, what does that look like on the ground? What other kinds of reporting are we seeing with this shift?

PANDE: So you've had journalists hit the ground and do this really macabre job of comparing official records of how many people have died versus how many people have been burnt in crematoriums or being buried in burial grounds. You've had journalists go to hospitals and see how health infrastructure is crumbling. This kind of reporting was missing in the first week.

If you look at primetime debates, I think a lot of discussion has started to question the Modi government on, you know, the vaccine mismanagement or why we weren't prepared enough for the second wave because we had enough time. And so you've had debates also veering towards questioning the government rather than the first wave, where we were mostly just celebrating and saying, we must support Modi.

CORNISH: What's been the response from the Modi government? Obviously, he has his own literal microphone, so to speak, right? Like, he has a show and...

PANDE: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Can broadcast to Indians himself directly. But I know this is an administration that has used tactics to suppress the media in the past. So what is this looking like in this environment?

PANDE: So one of the key features of this government has been that they haven't given us a press conference since the time that they've come to power. Modi has not taken a single press conference. Now, this is especially problematic during the pandemic because you don't have daily briefings where we are being told official numbers and stuff like that.

And I think the response from Modi government is really not very different from response from any criticism. It's to deflect, or it's to blame journalists and say that, OK, these guys are just here to, you know, talk about everything that's wrong. They're not going to be talking about anything that's good. And I think even though Modi may not speak himself, a lot of his ministers would launch Twitter campaigns against journalists, smear campaigns against journalists, saying that they're - you know, they're propagandists or they've been paid by the opposition to run these stories. So it's mostly to attack than really listen to what the media's saying.

CORNISH: You've talked to us about sort of the composition of Indian newsrooms - right? - that may be dominated by upper-class Hindu men that these media companies are often businesses that include, like, shipping or radio or construction. And so they want to stay on the government's good side. So do you think this change in this moment can last beyond the pandemic in terms of being really critical of the government?

PANDE: No. I think if you look at the news media space, it is mostly the independent news channels or news portals. These are mostly websites that are demanding accountability. You have an opposition which is pretty weak right now. Frankly, I'm not very - I can't offer you an optimistic answer for this because it is true that one of the key ways through which you can question the government or hold the government accountable is through the media, through the mainstream media. And it isn't doing its job.

CORNISH: As a result, is - when you look at public polling, is the public basically on the side of the Modi government right now?

PANDE: No, guaranteed no because things are really bad. And, you know, there isn't a family that hasn't lost someone or doesn't know someone who's lost someone. So currently the mood is very angry. But if you look at how media propaganda works, you know, it's a slow drip thing, which even today will - you know, you have a lot of debates blaming China. You know, this was biowarfare against India. And what would we do about it? Poor Modi - he's trying hard, but this is a war.

So, you know, you have most of these channels deflecting your attention on a daily basis. So even if you're angry and you've seen loss around you and you've seen the government really bungle it but you have a media which is one of the main instruments through which you make informed choices in a democracy, you see the media, and you see the media constantly making excuses for the government. It's very hard to sustain that anger or to channel that anger in a way that results in accountability. So that - I don't see that happening. And that's primarily because the media is either deflecting your attention from what's important or blaming other people or creating excuses for the government.

CORNISH: Manisha Pande, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PANDE: Thank you.

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