History will remember Covid-19 through pictures, accounts of those lived to share their experiences, and reports filed by journalists across the globe, many of whom are putting their lives at risk to cover the pandemic from the front lines.
With coronavirus spreading to all parts of the globe, the task of documenting and reporting the news to millions has kept media on its toes despite the risks of contracting the virus. Journalism has always called for reporting from the field, especially during a crisis.
“The humble face mask, a pair of gloves, a jacket and a prayer are my only protection while visiting hotspots,” says SL Shanth Kumar, a photojournalist with The Times of India, Mumbai.
“In such times, every individual is affected, and a journalist is no exception. There is definitely fear while covering stories. Our storytelling has also changed. We are now providing information on how corona warriors are working rather than showing different ruptures in the system and try not to create panic. Though it is important to show the truth but, in such times, being responsible is the need of the hour,” says Tapas Bhattacharya, a senior correspondent with Doordarshan.
“On-the-ground-reporting is a challenge now,” says Journalist Sam Daniel adding that “even though the information is available, no one wants to be an armchair journalist.” “In this kind of crisis, one should be on the ground. But reporters in India are either compromising on their safety because of their passion or are relying on press releases, speeches from the ministers but won’t get a chance to question them. Due-diligence is becoming all the more difficult. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, there is no interactive online mechanism for remotely asking questions to the health minister or authorities.”
In India, over 80 journalists have tested positive for coronavirus. The maximum number of cases were reported from Mumbai — 53 cases including reporters, cameramen and photojournalists. However, around 31 tested negative the second time. “When I received a call telling me I’ve tested positive, I was 130 km away from Mumbai. Throughout while driving back, I was worried, there were so many questions, and I was thinking about my family, recalls” Rafiq Maqbool, a photojournalist with the Associated Press.
“After I reached home, my wife insisted that I stay at home. But we realized it was important for me to stay away for the safety of my family. So, my wife packed my bag, and after getting a hug and a good luck charm from my daughter, I was on my way to the hotel for a week-long quarantine,” says Maqbool as he remembers never flinching while covering high-risk assignments like the war in Afghanistan, the Sri Lankan tsunami or the conflict in Kashmir.
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“When you think about what is happening around you, you fear for the well-being of your family. You think that I will never cover such stories again,” says Maqbool as he struggles to find words to describe his experience and immediately adds that “If we get access to shoot inside hospitals and capture the sufferings of the patients and doctors, I would leave to cover it tomorrow.”
Manisha Mondal, a photojournalist in Delhi with The Print, wasn’t allowed to enter her hostel by the authorities after she returned from an assignment in Rajasthan to cover the Covid-19 outbreak in Bhilwara. Several arguments later, though she was allowed inside, she was locked up in her room for two days. Post her two-week quarantine in her room, she is not allowed to take assignments outside, the national capital.
“In the hierarchy of essential services, I think we are at the bottom,” says Mondal adding that. “At the back of your mind, there is always guilt that if you’re infected, you can infect others too.”
Even though during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Janata curfew address on March 21, he declared journalists and media people as essential service. On March 31, the Centre sought a direction from the Supreme Court that no media outlet print, publish or telecast anything on coronavirus without first ascertaining facts from the mechanism provided by the government. While urging the media to “maintain a strong sense of responsibility”, the Supreme Court declined the government’s request.
“Even though we are an essential service, we are being treated as an outcast. People just assume you’re infected and will infect them too,” adds Mondal.
“Journalists provide the antidote to Covid-19 misinformation,” said UN chief António Guterres ahead of the World Press Freedom Day, recognised each year on May 3.
“As a fact check journalist, a lot of our work happens at ground level — from coordinating with people to the investigation of a claim. Not that, many of those things cannot be managed from home, but still we were never mentally ready for this new normal. I oversee healthcare domain and communicate with doctors a lot, that took a beating,” says Urvashi Kapoor, chief sub-editor at Jagran New Media.
“Often, during a crisis, the government tries to brush news under the carpet and in such times it’s more important for us to report facts. Social media and WhatsApp are full of unverified news, and the majority is locked down at home and relies on news for accuracy. That can’t be compromised,” adds Daniel.
“Witnessing queues where people were standing in the heat for hours just to get two square meal of ration. Anguish, despair and gloom on their faces, can move anyone. Covering them, and their tales gives me a purpose in life. Yes, the government machinery is also working round the clock but the efforts of good Samaritans, are of huge importance,” adds Bhattacharya.