The Journalist and the Vulture

What Solicitor General Tushar Mehta does not understand about the media

29 May 2020
Photojournalists run for cover as a tear-gas canister fired by the Indian security forces explodes near a shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir, in November 2019. On 28 May, before the Supreme Court, the solicitor general Tushar Mehta described photojournalists documenting the ongoing migrant crisis—an outcome of the nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus—as “vultures.”
Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty Images
Photojournalists run for cover as a tear-gas canister fired by the Indian security forces explodes near a shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir, in November 2019. On 28 May, before the Supreme Court, the solicitor general Tushar Mehta described photojournalists documenting the ongoing migrant crisis—an outcome of the nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus—as “vultures.”
Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty Images

On 28 May, during a Supreme Court hearing on the migrant crisis caused by the nationwide lockdown, Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general of India, narrated a story to the bench. It was about a photojournalist called Kevin Carter, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a photograph called “The Vulture and The Little Girl.” A few months after winning the Pulitzer, Carter, troubled by all that he had witnessed, took his own life. Mehta pulled the story out of the archives to blame the media for keeping the mounting death toll of migrant workers, and the tragic visuals emerging of their struggles, on the front pages of newspapers or in public consciousness. He implied that those documenting the crisis were akin to vultures, citing Carter’s storied image completely outside its context, and with gross factual inaccuracies. 

Last week, like the weeks before it, Indians woke up to jolting images of the humanitarian crisis—one of a starved migrant worker eating a dog carcass, and another of baby tugging at a cloth covering her dead mother. The 23-year-old woman had collapsed at the Muzaffarpur railway station, due to a combination of factors including heat, hunger, and dehydration. The tragic visuals made it increasingly difficult for the Supreme Court to turn a blind eye to the migrant-worker crisis. On 26 May, the court took suo moto cognisance of the crisis and issued notice to all governments, ordering the centre and the states to immediately provide free-of-cost transport, food and shelter to migrant workers. But for Mehta, the growing coverage of the migrant-worker crisis seemed to have raised another question: what were the journalists who were documenting the crisis doing to help?

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    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 coronavirus lockdown migrant workers Tushar Mehta Supreme Court of India Photojournalism
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