Centre places restrictions on media in COVID press briefings; shifts focus to Tablighi Jamaat

Lav Agrawal (centre), a joint health secretary, addresses a press briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic at the Press Information Bureau's National Media Centre in Delhi, on 23 March. Agrawal is joined by KS Dhatwalia (right), the principle spokesperson of the government of India and the PIB director general, and Balram Bhargava (left), the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research. PIB
06 April, 2020

On 1 April, Lav Agrawal, a joint secretary at the ministry of health and family welfare, addressed his briefest press conference so far. Given the prime minister and the health minister’s refusal to speak to the media—unlike their counterparts in other democracies—Agrawal has become the face of India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the ministry’s organisation structure, Agrawal comes after two secretaries, four special secretaries and four additional secretaries, and is one of the thirteen joint secretaries in the ministry of health. Less than a minute into Agrawal’s conference on April 1—47 seconds to be precise—Agrawal brought up COVID-19 outbreak among attendees of a conference held by the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organisation, in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area. Within thirteen minutes, Agrawal was done with briefing the press. Only three journalists were allowed to ask questions.

“The surge in cases in the recent days did not represent a national trend,” Agrawal said during the briefing—the confirmed cases in India had risen to over 1,600 cases by that day.  Referring to the need to enforce health precautions, he added, “We definitely know that if there is a failure on any front, it is obvious that the cases will increase. In this light, I would like to reiterate our directions that during the lockdown, everyone must avoid all religious gatherings.”

Since late March, the Tablighi Jamaat conference has occupied more time in press briefings than any other topic raised by health reporters. These included urgent issues, such as the shortage of personal protective equipment for medical professionals and testing kits, India’s low testing numbers, the pressures on doctors, chief ministers demanding PPE kits, and the government’s continuous denial of community transmission in India. The references to the Tablighi Jamaat conference, combined with a Supreme Court mandate that the government used to impose restrictions on the media, have altered the nature of India’s COVID-19 briefings.

The briefing on 1 April was the first since the introduction of new restrictions on journalists covering the pandemic. That day, Ajay Bhalla, the home secretary, had written to the chief secretaries of all the states informing them of a Supreme Court order in which it took “serious note of the panic created by fake news.” Bhalla wrote that the apex court “has also given directions on taking effective measures to check circulation of the fake news.” The home secretary’s letter informed the chief secretaries that the centre “is creating a web-portal where people can verify facts and unverified news promptly,” and urged all the state administrations to “create a similar mechanism.” But health journalists discovered that the government had introduced other measures following the Supreme Court’s order that directly curbed the freedom of press.

On 31 March, the Supreme Court had ruled on a plea by the Modi administration for directions that no media outlet could print, publish or telecast anything on the novel coronavirus “without first ascertaining the true factual position from the separate mechanism provided by the central government.” During the hearing, the bench, comprising the chief justice SA Bobde and the judge L Nageswara Rao, observed that fake news and panic would destroy more lives than COVID-19. The court directed the media to “maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated.” It added, “A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor General of India. We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments.”

As is evident, the court specifically refrained from passing any strict orders curtailing the freedom of press, and simply urged the media to be responsible in its reporting. At no point did the court recommend that the press conference should be limited to fewer journalists or that important questions should not be asked of the government. Yet, the central government appears to have interpreted the court’s to justify even lesser transparency. Since 1 April, the centre imposed strict restrictions on the journalists allowed to attend the briefings and ask questions of the government officials. Since then, most health reporters are no longer permitted to ask the government about its actions and strategies. Many reporters frustrated by the Islamophobic dog-whistling and compelled by an effective media gag, have taken to social media to raise the questions that the government has evaded.

Agrawal and other government officials have held these regular media briefings at the ministry of information and broadcasting’s National Media Centre, on Delhi’s plush Raisina Road, since mid March. These have been held every day since the national lockdown began, on 25 March, and normally lasted between thirty to fifty minutes. Until 31 March, the venue was packed with journalists, camerapersons busy with their equipment and government officials from multiple ministries. But the Supreme Court directive altered India’s COVID-related press briefings, according to a health journalist who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, since she does not have her news management’s permission to speak on the record.

The journalist told me over email that she had not missed a single press conference “as it is the only opportunity to communicate with officials,” before adding that she had stopped attending briefings since 1 April. “On that day, my question was not taken up by Mr Dhatwalia.” KS Dhatwalia is the principal spokesperson for the Indian government, who heads the Press Information Bureau and moderates the press briefings. “It was not a usual PC”—press conference—“at all. The PC concluded in about 13 minutes, most of which were taken up by statement read out by three officials. Three journalists were allowed to ask questions. After the PC ended and cameras were off, Mr Dhatwalia came up to me and informed me that only DD and ANI would be allowed to ask questions from now on,” the journalist wrote, referring to the national broadcaster Doordarshan and the agency Asian News International. Agrawal did not answer calls, and multiple numbers listed under Dhatwalia’s name on the PIB website were unreachable. A message and an email to Agrawal and Dhatwalia, respectively, went unanswered. This story will be updated if and when they respond.

(Dhatwalia sent the following response after the article was published: “Maximum questions accepted within available time. Remaining important questions are covered in the briefing or answered next day. Allegations of any community biased are strongly denied. Equitable distribution of questions among online, print and electronic media. Allegations are baseless and only from non PIB card holders . Our PCs are mainly for them. Others are permitted by our officers provided they are regular in their beat and my officers are interacting with them.” When I asked him the basis for determining the available time, he responded, “If there are not some urgent meetings.”)

Among many health journalists, the daily press conferences by the government have progressively been called sham briefings. Dhatwalia tightly moderates the interactions, does not allow follow-up questions and appears to cherry pick questions that the ministry is willing to address. Even during the 1 April briefing, when a journalist asked the joint secretary about the shortage of PPE and India’s low testing numbers, Dhatwalia intervened to ask a “supplementary question” about protective equipment. Agrawal responded with misleading claims about India’s actions to stockpile PPE, and avoided answering the question about India’s testing numbers. Dhatwalia moved on to the third and final question allowed by the government that day—about the Tablighi Jamaat conference. 

The seemingly restricted permission to Doordarshan and ANI journalists was not the only change since the Supreme Court directive. As of 2 April, the health ministry has also restricted access to the National Media Centre for the briefings only to those journalists accredited by the PIB. The health journalist who requested not to be identified recounted that on that day, “we received an unusual press invite” on the ministry’s WhatsApp group. Manisha Verma, the chief media officer of the union health minister, maintains a massive WhatsApp group of health reporters. “It was exclusively for PIB-accredited journalists,” the health journalist said.

As a norm, only PIB-accredited journalists are usually extended specific invites to events held inside government buildings, but journalists who take permission ahead of time are invariably allowed to attend press briefings. “Ministry had told us that non-PIBs were also allowed” for the press briefings, the health journalist continued. “And we actually were. We attended the PCs for more than a month with the same credentials. Everyone knows each other here.” This seemed to have changed following the Supreme Court’s directive. “But the invite on April 2 was different in the sense that it said ‘ONLY’ PIB accredited journalists. I reached out to Ms Verma asking if it was actually PIB-accredited ones only to attend the PC. She replied in a text confirming my apprehension. I don’t have PIB accreditation, and I don’t work with either DD or ANI. I stopped going.”

The PIB accreditation is a highly bureaucratic process, and one which needs several years of experience and çan often also require influential contacts. By introducing a requirement of PIB accreditation to cover the COVID-19 pandemic, the government brought down the journalist allowed to attend the press briefings to a handful, further curbing the media’s right to question it.  

Globally, the heads of states or the highest-ranking health official have been addressing the media conferences about the COVID-19 situation in their respective countries. For instance, Donald Trump, the United States president, and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have addressed numerous press briefings. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the prime minister Boris Johnson addressed daily press briefings since 16 March till he finally tested positive for the novel coronavirus himself. In effect, India’s gatekeeping over information related to the public-health crisis has removed two key players—the executive top brass, including the prime minister and the health minister, and the journalists with experience reporting on the health sector.

Instead, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the government built a wall around the health ministry, and as cases surged, the wall has only risen  higher. While it has webcast its briefings, which is how health and science reporters covering the pandemic across the country have accessed these, the government has been selective about which of their questions it chooses to answer. The World Health Organisation also webcasts its briefings and takes questions from journalists around the world over the internet. But unlike the WHO, the Indian health ministry asks reporters to submit question beforehand, on the WhatsApp group administered by the chief media officer, Verma. The health ministry then selectively picks what can only be described as softball questions for the joint secretary to answer during the briefings.

Following the Supreme Court order, journalists have gotten increasingly frustrated at the ministry’s interaction with the media. The press pool has taken to Twitter to express its outrage, and it has not minced its words. On 4 April, Rema Nagarajan, a health reporter for the Times of India, the country’s most widely circulated English daily, tweeted:

On just 1 day Apr 3-out of 23 questions asked only 1 or 2 taken up. Rest ignored. Then why ask journos to send ques to ministry WA
Then blame media for misinformation
No one from govt willing to confirm info or give info
Why so much secrecy?
Here is a thread of unanswered ques.

Nagarajan had quoted another tweet by the health journalist Banjot Kaur, who works with the magazine Down to Earth. The same day, Kaur tweeted, “We know the idea of asking reporters to put quests on @MoHFW_INDIA WA group before #pressers has been farcical. Not only quests are cherry-picked, hardly 1 or 2 are taken up. Here’s a thread of quests which went #unanswered on #Apr_3. #IndiaFightsCoronavirus by #GaggingPress.” Kaur then listed twenty-five questions—concerning the numbers of individuals tested, the conditions of patients, the shortage of PPE, the dangers to doctors, details about COVID-19 hotspots across India and the strategy for expanding testing, among others—that the ministry had not answered.

This is not the first time during this pandemic that health journalists have been compelled by the lack of information coming from the government to release a list of questions for the health ministry to answer. On 20 March, Scroll published a set of questions from a collective of health reporters that the government had refused to answer during its briefings. The report noted:

India has had more than two months to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak. China reported the first case of Covid-19 disease to the World Health Organisation on December 31. India confirmed its first case on January 30. Since then, the Indian government has repeatedly claimed it has reviewed the country’s health systems and taken all steps needed to strengthen them. But the government has been tardy in revealing the specifics.

With India gearing up for the first day of a country-wide lockdown on Sunday, here are 10 urgent questions for the government put together by a collective of health reporters.

Similar to Kaur’s list, the series of questions ranged from the shortage of testing kits to violence against healthcare workers, who are now threatening to strike, and to anomalies in the PPE procurement process. 

The restrictions on the media have also led to non-health journalists from pro-government organisations taking over the  question-and-answer sessions that follow the official statements by government officials during the press briefings. “Increasingly, the biggest irritant for us is the fixation on Tablighi Jamaat questions,” a health reporter working with a leading English daily, who also requested anonymity, said. “First Agrawal speaks about TJ, giving us statistics exclusively for Jamaat-related infections. Then Punya Salila Srivastava, joint secretary from the home ministry, speaks about visa and deportation related information about TJ. Then the agencies”—referring to Doordarshan and ANI—“ask question about TJ, and later Mr Dhatwalia picks an online question about TJ. What happened to the 6 lakh migrants who are currently spread across hundreds of camps in the country? The only narrative the ministry is pushing out is the demonising of TJ. They share stats exclusively of Jamaat and nothing else.”

Two conspicuous absentees from these press briefings have been the union health minister, Harsh Vardhan, and the union health secretary, Preeti Sudan, the ministry’s highest ranking bureaucrat. “Every country’s leader is addressing daily briefings,” the health reporter with the English daily said. “Our prime minister has not addressed a single briefing in his two terms, and now has sidelined the health minister, in his characteristic way by centralising the response.” She pointed out that even famously anti-science heads of state, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, were addressing briefings, while our nation’s entire top brass was missing. “Everyone is taking this seriously and our leaders are asking us to clap and light candles while people are dying.”

Health reporters working with the mainstream print media have also been facing another obstacle. Around six hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown, on 24 March, he personally asked over twenty owners and editors from the mainstream print media, via videoconference, to publish positive stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. “I am feeling the pressure of that videoconferencing,” the health reporter said. “There is a pandemic raging and we are not even talking about it. My stories are cleared at the highest level, and the editor constantly asks me to get positive stories. People are dying, and we are trying to find silver linings.”

The pattern set on the first briefing after the Supreme Court decision has continued all week. Since news broke of the COVID-19 outbreak among the attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat conference, the health ministry traced at least 960 cases of the virus to the Islamic organisation. On 13 March, one of the days of the religious congregation, the union health ministry had said that the “coronavirus is not a health emergency.” Weeks later,  India continues to be one of the least-testing nations in the world. While states like Chhattisgarh and Delhi have been asking for more testing kits, the centre has denied access, prompting leaders of both states to state this openly on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the government remains secretive about crucial issues such as PPE and testing-kit shortages, the threat to doctors, and the government’s overall mitigation strategy. Questions about these are stonewalled by Agrawal. The latest press briefing, on 5 April, continued for 21 minutes, in contrast to the one on 31 March, which lasted nearly 50 minutes. On 4 April, Agarwal informed the now-slim gathering of a journalists that nearly thirty percent of the cases reported in the entire country were linked to the Tablighi Jamaat gathering. These statistics omit the relevant context that the ministry is aggressively testing everyone related to the gathering while refusing to test its citizens, despite leaders of at least two state openly complaining about the same on Twitter. As on the morning of 6 April, the total number of confirmed cases reported by the health ministry stood at 4,067 and the death toll reached 109.

On 4 April, the health ministry also published a “Containment Plan for Large Outbreaks” on its website. In it, under the section on “Media Management,” the plan notes, “There will be regular press briefings/ press releases to keep media updated on the developments and avoid stigmatization of affected communities.” Yet, in the preceding week, the health ministry and the home ministry have led from the front to stigmatise the community, politicising the public-health nightmare facing us during its press conferences. With the outbreak at the Tablighi Jamaat conference, the Modi government has been able to weaponise the coronavirus pandemic as a dog-whistle campaign against the already-persecuted Muslim community.

The events come weeks after the national capital witnessed targeted violence in northeast Delhi’s Muslim neighbourhoods, which left at least 53 dead, mostly Muslims. The dog whistling forced JP Nadda, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national president, to request party leaders not to communalise the pandemic, during a meeting on 2 April. His comments come after BJP leaders and supporters made anti-Islamic comments on social media over the fallout of the Tablighi Jamaat gathering . The dogwhistling is already costing lives. On 1 April, one of the attendees who tested positive for the virus had tried to take his own life at a Delhi hospital. Four days later, Mohammad Dilshad, a 37-year-old man from Himachal Pradesh, hanged himself to death after reportedly facing a social boycott who suspected him to have contracted the virus from a Tablighi Jamaat conference attendee. Dilshad had already been quarantined and tested negative before returning to his home in Una district’s Bangarh village, but he continued to face discrimination, causing him to take his own life.

Meanwhile, other large gatherings, held after the Tablighi Jamaat conference, have not been vilified by the government in the same manner. For instance, on 23 March, the BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan took oath as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, after the party successfully toppled the Congress government, with significant attendance and complete disregard to social-distancing protocols. On 2 April, on the festival of Ram Navami, India witnessed religious gatherings across the country, with devotees queueing up at temples in Kolkata, in West Bengal, and Shirdi, in Maharashtra. On 6 March, the Bhaktivedanta Manor Hare Krishna temple—the largest UK centre of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISCKON—shut its doors after one of its members tested positive for COVID-19. But the British government did not vilify the Hindu diaspora in the country the manner in which we have seen the Muslim community targeted in India.

Yet, the Indian government’s focus has remained on the Tablighi Jamaat. During the press briefing on 6 April, Srivastava, the joint secretary in the home ministry, stated that the government had traced twenty-five thousand people who either attended the Tablighi Jamaat gathering or were in close contact with those who had attended it. Srivastava also noted that the government had blacklisted 1,750 attendees.

“In a short-sighted way, the government is focussed on one cluster, which is not geographic but religious in nature,” T Sundararaman, a co-convenor of the India chapter of People’s Health Movement, a global non-profit collective of health activists, civil-society organisations and academic institutions. “The main learning from the Jamaat experience, for public-health experts, is that if they were to test other clusters, they will find similar high incidences in many places. The communal virus has over taken coronavirus. They should take all such clusters this seriously and look for more clusters by testing all symptomatic cases as well as all admissions and deaths due to SARI”—severe acute respiratory infections. Sundaram added, “At this point, people belonging to any community other than the Tablighi Jamaat, should be concerned that they are not getting the medical attention they need. The measures are not in keeping with public health practices.”

All this while, critical journalists have been threatened and doctors complaining of shortages have worked under increasingly stressful conditions, which has included the police asking for details of all doctors who are administrators of WhatsApp groups. The Indian health ministry has failed to answer specific questions about the health of migrants now marooned in camps; about the uncertainty faced by India’s health workers who need more testing kits and safety gear; and about patients who require a humane policy that allows free testing and treatment. It has however, successfully, hid a pandemic in plain sight, with the help of the Supreme Court’s order, and painted a target on the backs of an already persecuted Muslim minority.