Pandemic and a free press

India must return to its democratic values to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak effectively

Updated - September 17, 2020 01:23 am IST

Published - September 17, 2020 01:03 am IST

India is justly proud of its position as the world’s largest democracy. It is less proud of the fact that it has become a hotbed for the spread of COVID-19 , with an estimated 90,000 daily infections, and over 5 million cases overall, second only to the United States. Can India find a way to combat the virus while preserving the democratic values that define the nation?

At the heart of any democracy is an informed citizenry that is empowered to make decisions and hold its government accountable. That is why there is nothing more essential to a democracy than a free press. It is not merely the means through which citizens gather information. It is the vehicle through which ideas are debated, policies are formulated, and conflicts are resolved. Yet, India’s press freedom record has seen a decline in recent years.

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Violent attacks against journalists, including murder, are surprisingly common in India and rarely punished. A 2016 report entitled ‘Dangerous Pursuits’ by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the organisation I lead, found that journalists who report on government corruption are routinely murdered with impunity. Legal prosecution is also rife, particularly against journalists reporting on the conflict in Kashmir. Aasif Sultan, a journalist with the monthly Kashmir Narrator , was arrested on August 31, 2018 in reprisal for his reporting. He has since spent more than two years in jail.

‘Only official versions’

These negative trends have only intensified since the COVID-19 outbreak, with journalists across the country facing attacks, harassment, and arrests. The Narendra Modi government of course famously asked the Supreme Court to impose a nationwide censorship on the publication of information that the government deemed “false or inaccurate.” The Supreme Court denied that request, but it did direct the media to refer to the “official version” of events when covering the pandemic — an ambiguous edict which has not been enforced.

The government, and the Indian society as a whole, have a legitimate concern about the ways in which the spread of false or misleading information can undermine public health and efforts to fight the pandemic. And the damage to the Indian economy caused by the disease itself and the precipitous national lockdown in March has inflicted tremendous pain on families across the nation.

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The Modi government needs to deploy the full arsenal of tools available in a democracy to confront the challenge. This means presenting a clear and credible plan to the people for tackling COVID-19, and using persuasion, arguments, evidence and reason to rally their support. It means unleashing the innovation and entrepreneurship of the Indian business community that has fuelled the country’s rapid growth. It means encouraging debate and competition of ideas that drive political solutions. And it means combating misinformation through aggressive public information campaigns, not raw censorship.

The democratic world is rooting for India’s success. While Chinese censorship helped fuel the original outbreak in Wuhan by suppressing information about the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Chinese government has used its propaganda networks to cover up its initial failures and shape global perceptions. China has made the case that its system of authoritarian power was essential for controlling the pandemic. It contrasts the giant pool parties in Wuhan, where life has largely returned to normal, with the chaotic response in democratic countries like the United States, Brazil, and India.

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Not surprisingly, the Chinese government’s narrative has resonated with authoritarian governments around the world that have used a public health emergency to restrict civil liberties and increase State surveillance and control. Even in democracies, citizens are beginning to wonder if liberty and freedom must be sacrificed to fight the disease. The U.S., grappling with its own shortcomings and political dysfunction, has not effectively made the case that democracy is an asset and not a liability in fighting a public health emergency.

India has long been a leader and an example in the democratic world, but its response to the pandemic has weakened its position. In order to restore its lustre, India’s leaders need to express confidence in democratic principles and trust in the country’s citizens. That starts with a commitment to a free press.

Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists

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