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 to publish positive stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. The owners and editors represented media organisations working in 11 different languages, including the senior-most members of national media houses such as the Indian Express Group, the Hindu Group and the Punjab Kesari Group. According to a report on Modi’s official website, the prime minister asked the participants to “act as a link between government and people and provide continuous feedback” on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The website further noted that in the interaction, which was conducted via videoconferencing and lasted an hour and a half, the prime minister emphasised that “it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumor. Citizens need to be assured the government is committed to countering the impact of COVID-19.”
Through the interaction, the prime minister’s website reported, Modi sat with a notebook and pen and could be seen taking down notes when the participants offered suggestions. The exercise almost represented the journalists as a part of the government, as opposed to being members of an institution whose job entailed questioning the government on its shortcomings. Instead, most of the owners and editors appeared grateful for the exchange. The prime minister’s website reported that the journalists committed to “work on the suggestions of the prime minister to publish inspiring and positive stories” about COVID-19. After the interaction, some owners and editors who were present in the meeting took to Twitter to thank the prime minister for making them a part of the videoconference and seeking their opinions, while others published reports on the meeting on the front page the next day, with photos of themselves and Modi on the television screen.
Following the conference, I spoke to nine owners and editors of media houses, from both national and regional media, who participated in the interaction. Almost all of them appeared enamoured by what some described as an important “gesture” from Modi, of considering their opinions.
I asked the owners and editors whether their interaction with Modi, given his suggestion to publish positive stories, would affect their editorial judgment while publishing a critical piece on the government’s policies for fighting the novel coronavirus. Only two of them explicitly said they would publish a critical piece despite the interaction, while three said they would not do so but for different reasons, not due to the interaction. One of them asked me to omit references to such questions while referring to our conversation in this report. Others refused to comment at all.
But a scrutiny of their organisations’ subsequent COVID coverage revealed that Modi’s words of caution had done the job—the newspapers were evidently uncritical of the government’s response to the virus. The coverage of the public-health crisis by these organisations contained little mention of the poor planning and disastrous implementation of the lockdown, or the government’s failure to prepare for the pandemic, such as by stockpiling crucial medical equipment for healthcare workers, despite early warnings by the World Health Organisation.