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.”