A scan of the news channels, a glance at the Indian timeline on Twitter, a glimpse at the newspaper, will confirm just one thing. Covid is back and this time, it is worse than before. Across social media, there are calls for help and the communities of Twitter have banded together to help. There are people we know who are infected. There are people who we know, who are dying. Everywhere we look there is despair – public areas converted to crematoriums, graveyards running out of space and people dying while waiting for a hospital bed. One of the cases that struck me was that of a 65-year-old man with comorbidities, who posted his oxygen level and asked for help on Twitter. We were later informed that he had passed away.
Each day, we are breaking the record for the highest number of cases recorded. On Sunday morning, there were about 2.6 lakh new cases in India, about 30,000 more than the previous day’s record. And most feel the numbers are underreported. The evidence is in front of our eyes – the number of people we know personally who have been impacted – close friends, family, colleagues does not seem to tally with the number put out by ‘official’ sources. In each state facing the crisis, there have been questions about the numbers. And from the accounts of journalists, and doctors, it seems that there is no standard way of counting the infected and the dead, and that each medical administrator makes her own decision on how to represent a case.
While regional media seem to be taking state governments to task and asking them tough questions; the national media seems to find it difficult to arise from its supine position. In the 12 months since the lockdown, the national media has led a vilification campaign against Muslims, accusing them of corona Jihad; managed to miss the story of migrants walking back home – till independent journalists and social media made them take notice; it has managed to convert every issue into a polarised slanging match; it has to divert attention from real issues by stirring the communal pot; and worst of all, it has not told either the government or us about the impending crisis.
For example, Covid is not new. We have been under some form of lockdown for the best part of 12 months. Other nations have come out of one lockdown and walked into the next, with numbers surging. And yet, our media has missed the story. It was only a week ago that we realised we did not have enough medical grade oxygen. As the fourth pillar of democracy, it is the role of the media to highlight issues in the systems, to act as the early warning system. It has abdicated its responsibility either out of fear, or out of desire for favour – and it has let us all down.
BJP ideologue, and former leader LK Advani famously said of the Indian media during the Emergency, “You were asked only to bend, but you crawled.” One is not even sure if the media was asked to bend. But crawl they did, to be part of the corridors of power. To gain sponsorships for their events, and access to those who wielded power. It is done in every regime, would be the chorus – and it would be right, But no other regime has had to face a pandemic that threatens to suffocate our lives, and our dreams. Where was the media when oxygen units were not being set up? Where was the media when capacity was not ramped up? Where was the media when enough vaccines were not procured in time? Where was the media when enough vaccines were not being manufactured? Where was the media when it came to raising the sense of urgency in citizens and in being the watchdog, watching those in power?
The mainstream media was busy creating fake bogeymen and trying to divert attention. Our political system is broken, but I have great faith that it will be fixed. Just see the next generation of leaders – across parties – responding to the crisis and providing help and leadership at a time like this. The mainstream news media is broken, and there does not seem to be much hope for a model that has no substance and no soul. Whose purpose seems to be to sell kilos of viewers to advertisers, to peddle their wares. A media that does not think twice about taking money to advertise lies – products that will not help in controlling corona.
The news media is called the fourth pillar of democracy, because it is supposed to question those in authority, without fear or without favour. Our mainstream media is both terrified and works for favours – a dangerous combination. A watchdog that does not raise the alarm, is of no use. And this toothless, barkless watchdog is, unfortunately, the mainstream Indian news media. A wake-up call for citizens to band together to fund independent media and journalists, beats and issues of interest -that would watch out for all of us – not for themselves alone.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker.