A Rejoinder: PIB and ICMR did not respond to questions after claiming report on task force was fake news

16 April 2020

On 15 April, The Caravan carried a report titled, “Modi administration did not consult ICMR-appointed COVID task force before key decisions,” by the journalist Vidya Krishnan. The report noted that despite constituting a 21-member national task force on COVID-19 comprising leading scientists from across the country, the central government did not consult them on key health-policy decisions pertaining to India’s response to the pandemic. The ICMR had not responded to emails and messages seeking their comments well before the story was published, but that afternoon, the organisation tweeted that The Caravan’s report had made “false claims” and “conjectures.” Shortly afterwards, the Press Information Bureau also tweeted from its PIB Fact Check handle on Twitter, claiming that the article was fake news.

That evening, Krishnan wrote an email to Balram Bhargava, the ICMR’s director general, Vinod Paul, the chairperson of the task force, the official PIB Fact Check email address, and Manisha Verma, the assistant director general in the PIB for the health ministry. In it, Krishnan highlighted that her report published by The Caravan was based on four member-scientists of the task force, and that neither the ICMR nor the PIB had offered a response to several questions of grave importance raised by her in the article. She also pointed out that both Bhargava and Paul had been given sufficient time to respond before the article was published, which they had opted not to do. Finally, Krishnan asked several questions of the ICMR and PIB that arose from her report, without answering which it would be difficult for the organisations to characterise the report as false. Given that the ICMR had simply denied the allegations raised by members of the task force without any substantive response to them, Krishnan inquired about what fact-checking process the PIB had conducted before concluding that The Caravan’s report was fake news.

Krishnan asked the recipients to respond to the email by noon on 16 April. At 9:53 am, she received a response from the PIB Fact Check account, noting that the email was being forwarded to Verma for a detailed response, while also acknowledging that she was already marked on the email. At the time this rejoinder was published, Krishnan had not received a response from Bhargava, Paul or Verma. Published below is the full text of Krishnan’s email.

Vidya Krishnan is a global health reporter who works and lives in India. Her first book, Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History, was published in February 2022 by PublicAffairs.

Keywords: COVID-19 Indian Council of Medical Research