The administration of Andaman and Nicobar is muzzling the media: Local Journalists

07 May 2020
Journalists wearing face masks are seen outside an isolation ward in Siliguri, West Bengal. Alongside the pandemic, the Andaman and Nicobar islands have seen a deterioration of press freedom, with journalists critical of government measures facing hostility and legal reprisals.
DIPTENDU DUTTA / AFP / Getty Images
Journalists wearing face masks are seen outside an isolation ward in Siliguri, West Bengal. Alongside the pandemic, the Andaman and Nicobar islands have seen a deterioration of press freedom, with journalists critical of government measures facing hostility and legal reprisals.
DIPTENDU DUTTA / AFP / Getty Images

On 27 April, the police picked up Zubair Ahmed, a freelance journalist based in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, near Bambooflat, a town in the South Andaman Island. Ahmed is also the former editor of the now-defunct English weekly Light of Andamans. A day earlier he had tweeted about families being put under quarantine after they receiving phone calls from relatives who had tested positive for COVID-19. The tweet came a day after the Andaman Chronicle, an English daily based in the island, reported that a family was put under quarantine for having contacted a COVID-19 patient over phone. He was taken to the Aberdeen police station and was informed that he was being arrested under sections 51 and 55 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which pertain to offences relating to any functions laid down under the DMA. He was also charged under several sections of the Indian penal code including—section 188 which deals with “disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant”, 269 for “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life” and 505(1) (b) which refers to “whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause fear or alarm among the public,” among other sections. Ahmed was then produced before the additional district magistrate and detained at the Aberdeen police station. He was granted bail the next day.

The arrest of Ahmed has been only a part of the deterioration of press freedom in Andaman and Nicobar where journalists said they experienced frequent government hostility in the past few months. Independent media houses were not getting responses from authorities when questioned about policy decisions and individual government officers refused to speak to journalists fearing disciplinary action. Newspapers and journalists that reported critically about the administration’s management of the COVID-19 crisis were also facing legal sanctions and complaints from the Directorate of Information Publicity and Tourism—or DIPT—the primary public relations organ of the government, for their work. There has also been a reduction in government advertising which is financially starving small independent newspapers.

On 26 April, the Andaman Chronicle carried a news report on four people of a family being put under home quarantine by the district administration. A 79-year-old from Haddo, a town in South Andaman, had spoken over the phone with a relative who had tested positive for the coronavirus. “He just wanted to ask about the well-being of the relative over phone,” Denis Giles, the editor of Andaman Chronicle, told me. “Within hours, the authorities landed up at their home and put them on home quarantine for 28 days without any explanation.” The Andaman Chronicle had quoted one of the relatives saying, “is it that we are home quarantined just because my father-in-law spoke to his relative (a corona positive case) to enquire about his well-being? I fail to understand how a telephonic conversation with a corona positive person can land anyone in home quarantine.”

The same day, Ahmed had tweeted, “Request  #Covid19 quarantined persons not to call any acquaintance over phone. People are being traced and quarantined on the basis of phone calls.” The next day, Ahmed, in another tweet, asked, “Can someone explain why families are placed under home quarantine for speaking over phone with Covid patients?”

According to Dependra Pathak, the union territory’s director general of police, when 22 members of a family in Bambooflat tested positive for COVID-19, the entire area was declared a containment zone. “Aggressive exercise was carried out that who all can be possible contacts, basically contact tracing,” he said. “One method of contact tracing is to whom he has spoken four-five times, because generally the trend is before you land you speak and then you go and meet.” However, this explanation is unconvincing because the family who tested positive would have been quarantined and would not be able to go meet others. The police should also have enquired with the family if any meeting between them did take place.

Nileena MS is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. 

Keywords: Freedom of Press media freedom Andaman and Nicobar Islands coronavirus lockdown COVID-19
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