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Covering a pandemic in the age of disinformation and media control

May 5, 2020

Covering a pandemic in the age of disinformation and media control

Challenges in gathering and verifying information dominated the discussion in a webinar held to reflect on the difficulties journalists face in a world under lockdown because of coronavirus. Organised by 101Reporters, a network of freelance journalists in the Indian subcontinent, and Hostwriter, a website to help journalist collaborate, the webinar held on April 27 also highlighted the need for global collaboration to meet the demand during the pandemic.

Speaking about the current scenario in India, Mumbai-based freelance journalist Kunal Purohit highlighted that the voices of the most vulnerable aren’t being covered by the media. He stated that 40% of Mumbai’s population resides in only 8% of the land area, and that makes it difficult for a journalist to go forward with ground reporting without endangering their lives.

He added that journalists are at increased risk as they come in contact with people in the COVID-19 hotspots and they have no way of ascertaining their safety as 80% of the cases are asymptomatic. 

Anuradha Sharma, India ambassador for Hostwriter, highlighted that journalists have not been able to procure the necessary data from government sources during the pandemic. 

She added that the West Bengal government has asked the media to not fuel anxiety among the public and focus on ‘positive stories’

Speaking on the difficulty to obtain data from official sources, Saurabh Sharma, Network Head and Uttar Pradesh State Editor, 101Reporters, shared that he has been filing Right To Information (RTI) requests since December on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. However, he is receiving the replies in April, even though the law states that it should be answered within 30 days. 

He added that in the press briefings by the UP government, only the journalists, who follow the government’s narrative, are invited.

If anyone criticises the government, they are met with the full force of the State, he commented.

Speaking on the problems they face owing to the delays in RTI replies, Shailesh Shrivastava, Managing Editor, 101Reporters, mentioned that by the time they receive an RTI reply, the news relevance of the story is lost and the publisher drops the story.

Christina Lee, Network Head with Hostwriter, Berlin, stated that several populist governments such as Hungary and Brazil are silencing the press like India while adding that the German government enjoys the trust of the people due to their transparency.

While highlighting on fake news, Manish Chandra Mishra, Bhopal-based freelance journalist, stated that WhatsApp has fuelled the rise in disinformation and said that rumours have often found a place in mainstream media. He claimed that even the authorities have been hiding facts to add a certain colour to the story

Hemant Gairola, News Editor, 101Reporters, mentioned that sticking to the basics is the way to go forward while covering the stories now. He puts the onus on the reporter to go the extra mile to confirm a story instead of waiting for fact-checkers to do it for you.

Zahra Salah Uddin, Community Engagement Manager with Hostwriter, Berlin, highlighted the role of Hostwriter in amplifying voices from under-reported areas, and has provided freelance journalists with an opportunity to work on the COVID-19 crisis.

The webinar also touched upon the kind of stories that are being commissioned now, the delays in payment of freelance journalists and how the government is keeping journalists out of the press briefings using their stringent accreditation rules.