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If Only COVID-19 Could Tell Us Who’s Better– The Media or the Government?

Please send us a WhatsApp message so we know who to trust in this pandemic

By Mehr Sohal

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis in India (and globally), an imperceptible conflict can be seen between the media and the government; leaving the general public confused about who to side with in this game of tug and war. The media who is spreading fake news irresponsibly, or the government who is withholding information and forcing the media to follow their diktat? To quote Ramachandra Guha, does “the Prime Minister bear ultimate responsibility for what is unquestionably the greatest man-made tragedy in the country since Partition?”

In April, Reuters was banned from Iraq for 3 months on the basis that they released a false report of the number of COVID-19 cases in Iraq. However, Reuters defended themselves by claiming they cited doctors involved in the testing process. In this growing ‘infodemic’, how does the public know who to trust? Dear Coronavirus, please let us know. 

To ensure that I wasn’t the only fanatical person flabbergasted by the situation, I conducted a small survey (a little over 100 people) to understand what people find more dangerous in this situation– fake news or no news. 64% of the sample population find fake news more harmful, while the remaining 36% disliked lack of information from the government. Hence, there is clearly a concerning torn population. An interesting response to my survey from an 18-year-old stated that “If there’s no clear and direct news from the government, it allows for fake news to be shared and believed.” This is an intriguing point to bring up, as we must question if it is the government itself, and the void of information that is giving room for rumours

In conversation with Khushwant Singh, State Information Commissioner of Punjab, he mentioned that “Fake news from the media is very damaging because it creates a narrative, which is nonexistent and false.” However, the government has undoubtedly played some hand in this wildfire of misinformation. Remember Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initial announcement of lockdown that lacked any substantial information on things like the availability of groceries? This gap in communication led to bulk purchasing and several rumours, that simply increased anxiety. And so, can we really blame misinformation solely on the media, when such announcements leave people desperate to the extent that crazy hoaxes are brewed?

A freelance journalist (anonymous) working for Indian Express, Mint and more, gave me greater insight into how the media is not ‘all bad’– “Only some media houses and indeed some businesses can be accused of this [media’s over-exploitation of the pandemic]. . .If anything, I think the pandemic has brought a lot of media back to its traditional role of analysing the role of the government and also shaken it out of its “briefings oriented” style of coverage by forcing reporters to go into the field. The people, rather than the celebrities have become the news again.” This optimistic (yay!) perspective greatly differs from Khushwant Singh, who working for the government believes, “The media always overplays things; and since a large part of it is run by business groups, media’s interest in the financial sops cannot be ruled out.” This contrast in opinions yet again leaves me with more questions than answers. 

On the topic of fake news and government, have you heard about the new ‘craze’ amongst world leaders? The #Let’sBecomeAuthoritarian trend? India too seems to have followed this hashtag by attempting to suppress dissent. The government is possibly using the ‘fake news’ tag to avoid scrutiny from the media in some cases and snatch our right of freedom of speech. An example being an ‘Indian Express’ report about a doctored (by the government) audiotape of the Tablighi Jamaat leader, was accused of being fake, as it openly attacked the government. Now, the reporter is facing legal challenges even though he had approached the Special CP before releasing the article. Hence, I believe there should be a better framework in place for tackling fake news that does not play in favour of the government; but still eliminates truly fabricated reports.

In the unnamed journalist’s words, “It is not really the job of the government to give news (it is to govern) but it is the job of the media to do so. In this field, the media has greater credibility. It could use it to do good, or do bad.” While writing this article, I simply got further confused on which side of the coin to trust, and I’m sure you are too. However, what I am confident of is that the media has the power of words and curiosity, and the government has the power of taking responsible action; and yet they have been abusing this power. What is of importance now is that each of them should stick to wielding their respective wands in this dreary situation, and cause less suffering to India. 

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