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

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
07 May, 2020

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.

According to Pathak, a team to manage quarantines was formed based on the guidelines of the ministry of health including health officials and police. “We were very very aggressive, that is why we could contain,” Pathak said. “It is only a half-truth that people were being quarantined over phone, because it is only one methodology to allocate and then there is a due process.” Pathak also alleged that the family could have spoken to the newspaper under undue influence. However, both Denis and Ahmed told me that there had been no follow-up process and the family was quarantined for the phone conversation alone.

Pathak in his written response to my query described Ahmed as a “self-proclaimed journalist.” The response claimed he was arrested for “posting the inciting, false and instigating tweet to disrupt public harmony, violating government order and to create panic among public.” According to Pathak, legal action was essential to avoid the public from panicking, giving false statement or gathering in large numbers to protest. “He started creating an atmosphere by writing on Twitter as well as informally speaking to people not to give details to the administration,” Pathak told me. He said that Ahmed along with four others had been arrested for spreading fake information and misleading people. According to Ahmed, the administration was clubbing his case with other completely unrelated cases to paint him in an unfavourable light. On May 2, I asked Pathak whether the report that appeared in the Andaman Chronicle was untrue. Denying the truthfulness of the report Pathak told me that he had issued a clarification on it and that he would share it with me. However, he has not shared this yet despite repeated requests.

“I know families, who had called and told me about this,” Ahmed told me over the phone, referring to families being quarantined on the basis of a phone call. Ahmed emphasised that he had obtained and verified this information independently. He continued, “I had confirmed information. The administration never clarified with me from where I had got the information. They have still not responded to the actual issue; they are just running around after me.” In the tweet, Ahmed had tagged the official Twitter handles of the media cell of the secretariat of Devendra Kumar Joshi, the lieutenant governor, and the Andaman and Nicobar union territory administration. “It was a question,” Mohammad Tarbraiz, Ahmed’s lawyer said. Tabraiz said that if the tweet was wrong, the government could have clarified this. “Instead, the administration decided that it is better to register an FIR.” 

I spoke to several journalists from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, all of whom told me that there were no avenues for them to get a response or clarification from the administration. Officials in the union territory do not hold any media briefings. Journalists said officials only rarely respond to phone calls or queries. “All he did was to ask a valid question,” SP Elango, the editor of the English daily Aspect, told me, referring to Ahmed. “He was booked and arrested for this. We are all protesting against this.”

Giles said he stands by the report published in Andaman Chronicle. According to Giles, the Andaman Chronicle had reached out to Avijit Roy, the deputy director of health for the union territory, who is the nodal officer of COVID-19 for Andaman and Nicobar, and other local officials with the health department to verify the information, but did not get a response. “If it was some sort of a secret mission being carried out by the administration, they should have advised the media that this was the process and please cooperate with us because we are trying to trace out all the contacts,” Giles said. “Definitely, the media would have supported in the larger interest of the islanders.” Roy was not reachable despite repeated attempts to contact him over phone.

Similar to Ahmed, the English daily Andaman Express had also drawn the ire of the Andaman and Nicobar administration. On 28 April, the Andaman Express published a small column titled COVID-19 with two tweets of Chetan B Sanghi, the chief secretary of the union territory. The column read, “With over 7100 tests per million population, Andamans is chasing the Virus, and not the other way around.” This sentence was from a tweet by Sanghi on 28 April. The next sentence was from another tweet by Sanghi on 24 April asking people to stay home. “People, pls #StayHome No casual meeting, giving meals in neighborhood, birthdays, hiding of symptoms, roaming!” This was all attributed to Sanghi’s twitter account and these two separate tweets were carried together without any marker to indicate that that they were tweeted on different dates.

On 28 April, K Ganeshan the editor of Andaman Express and the president of the Andaman and Nicobar Media Federation, an association of journalists based on the islands, received a show-cause notice from the DIPT for the column. The show-cause notice said, “Tweets sent by users are always printed as an exact representation else there is a possibility of misquoting the person tweeting. Your newspaper has however, amalgamated more than one separate tweet and selectively printed it in the newspaper which goes against basic journalistic ethics and norms as practiced from time to time.” The notice further quotes guidelines from the Press Council of India, a self-regulatory government watchdog of the press, on verifying facts with the concerned sources. The notice said that the newspaper had failed to adhere to the PCI’s guidelines on accuracy and fairness. Based on this, the deputy director of the department asked Ganeshan to “explain your actions within three days of receipt of the notice failing which action” will be taken against him. No further action has yet been taken.

Giles told me that the show-cause notice was an extreme step taken by the administration. “This is all a way to scare the media. If there is a report which is wrongly published or some factual errors, the first duty of the administration is to issue a rejoinder or a clarification and requesting the editor to carry that clarification.”

Ganeshan believed that the show-cause notice had nothing do with the tweets they had published, but were instead related to the arrest of Ahmed. “I had gone to the police station to visit Zubair Ahmed and had gone to his bail hearing. That’s why they have sent this now,” he said. Neither the chief secretary nor the lieutenant governor’s office responded to queries about this case when contacted over the phone and by email.

Ganeshan pointed out that the reason independent news organisations have to publish tweets is because the administration has been stone-walling them. Ganeshan told me that the departments either have no spokespersons or they are not accessible when journalists call them. Referring to official spokespersons, Ganeshan said, “If there are PROs we can cross-check the information that we get.” He added, “They are updating the positive Corona cases on Twitter. We are publishing what they had posted and now they are telling us that that is against journalistic ethics.”

On 23 April, the Andaman and Nicobar Media Federation demanded that the union territory’s administration conduct daily press briefings as the media and general public were not getting adequate information from the DIPT. Giles too pointed to the complete lack of clarity from the administration. “The media is not being briefed anything by any official,” he said. “It is only the tweets by the chief secretary Chetan B Sanghi which is the only source of information to the media and the people. This is being practiced by Sanghi and he doesn’t like anybody who questions. The Andaman administration functions more like a dictatorship.” All six journalists I spoke to expressed their frustration at the lack of information from the government and the refusal of authorities to communicate with the media.

According to the DIPT, there are 49 registered newspapers in English, Hindi, Tamil and Bengali in Andaman and Nicobar. This includes 14 dailies, 17 weeklies and 17 fortnightlies. Several journalists I spoke to said that only the two government publications—Daily Telegram, in English, and Dweep Samachar, in Hindi—were allowed to function properly. Both the Daily Telegram and Dweep Samachar have occasionally been used by the local administration to attack stories in independent publications that are critical of it.

On 20 April, the Andaman Chronicle had reported about the risks of COVID-19 spreading after the administration’s decision to transfer police officials following a police radio officer testing positive for the virus. After the radio officer tested positive, only two of the officers he was in contact with were quarantined with the others being moved for duty to the Middle Andaman and North Andaman districts. These two districts previously had no cases and had been declared green zones. The story quoted, the unnamed chief medical officer of the community health centre at Rangat town in middle Andaman island, who questioned the need to transfer officials from COVID-19 affected areas to green zones.

“Instead of giving a rejoinder or clarification to us,” Giles said about the administration, “the Daily Telegram published an article against the Andaman Chronicle.” He was referring to an article in the Daily Telegram on 21 April titled “Clarification on the News Item published in ‘Andaman Chronicle- The Daily Diary of the Islands’ on 20.04.2020.” The article said that the Andaman administration had allowed the travel of 42 police men after they tested negative on 16 April. However, after they started the journey, a positive case had been reported of an officer with a contact history with the two quarantined members of the police team.

The Daily Telegram article further said, “it is our request to all the print and electronic media to confirm such contents/or take opinion of the Department of Health before publishing such news to avoid misinformation and panic among the public. Media is vital shareholder in our fight against COVID-19 and should contribute constructively to prevent spread of infection effectively. The Administration has already initiated action against the officer who without confirming facts from the Department made such unwanted comment.” The same day, Andaman Chronicle carried another report saying that the CMO, “clarified that he was not in receipt of proper information on the transportation of the policemen from Port Blair to North & Middle Andaman.”

When asked about the administration’s lack of communication with the media, Pathak told me over the phone, “As far as the police are concerned, I am available all the time.” He continued, “All smallest actions are mostly on Twitter from the administration. The chief secretary gives immediate information on positive and negative cases and action taken by the administration on Twitter.” Pathak said that press conferences were not occurring only because the pandemic was an unprecedented situation. He claimed that all relevant information journalists needed could be taken from the government publication Daily Telegram and the DIPT. The Lieutenant Governor and Chief Secretary did not respond to my queries regarding these complaints raised by the journalists.

Giles and other journalists I spoke to disagreed. They said it was impossible to get any kind of clarification from the administration. They added that it was further impossible to have sources within the government as no one wanted to take the risk of disciplinary action for sharing official information. “They do not prefer to communicate with the media at all,” Giles told me. He added that instead of answering questions from journalists, the Andaman administration preferred publishing only uncritical information in its official publication. “They say that they have a print publication, All India Radio, Doordarshan, channels available on cable television, and social media which is their Twitter handle.” Giles said. “So, everything is fair in Andaman. This is how they have been projecting things.” Giles added that the administration issues press releases which only mentions the steps taken by the administration and there is no way for the reporters to raise questions or ask for further details.

Meanwhile, the Andaman administration is taking steps to further expand its presence in the media. On 11 April, the Daily Telegram carried a report saying that the Andaman administration has developed a website for fact-checking information published on news and social media. The same week, the Daily Telegram also reported the launching of a television channel on health.

“The situation of the media here is bad. We cannot publish anything that is critical of the administration,” an owner-editor of a weekly who wished to remain anonymous told me. “The administration functions in an authoritative way, there is no way to raise any question. The main problem is that there is no spokesperson from the health or police department to talk to us, and from the LG’s office. It is difficult to speak anything against them.” He added that the strong-arming of independent media houses was affecting their already weakening profits. “The financial situation of the media here is bad and most of them are very small enterprises struggling to keep it going,” he told me.

Giles said that most of the media in Andaman are dependent on advertisements from the administration. He said, in the past year, the number of advertisements coming in from the local administration had continued to fall, starving small newspapers of financing. “In 2006, when I started the Andaman Chronicle, we used to get a revenue of twenty-five thousand rupees per month and this increased to sixty-five thousand rupees in 2018. Now the revenue has come down to fifteen or twenty thousand rupees per month,” Giles said.

Elango said that in the past two months, most business houses were closed due to the lockdown and it was impossible to get private advertisements. Without this, local media houses are struggling to keep the business going. “The advertisements were less before, but in the last two months, it has come to zero,” Elango said. “No advertisements have been given. We don’t have any other means of revenue generation. This is the situation of the local media.”

An official with the DIPT, who I spoke to, disagreed that it was local government decisions that were causing this slowdown in government advertising, but the automated system created to assign advertisements. “The current issue faced by the local media is because of the lock-down. They are not getting it because, the departments are not uploading advertisements.” According to him, the process of issuing advertisements has been digitised and individual departments upload it on National Informatic Centre’s website from where it can be downloaded. The NIC is a body under the union ministry of electronics and information technology which provides information and communication technology support to government bodies. However, according to the Andaman and Nicobar Media Federation, the government tenders are being published in the Daily Telegram, but they are not released to other media. On May 4, the Federation has again requested the administration to release advertisements to all local media.

The bureau of outreach and communication under the union ministry of information and broadcasting, empanels newspapers with circulation between 25,000 to 75,000 copies per day for publishing government advertisements. “Because of the small circulation figures and size of the publications, most of us do not fall under that,” Elango told me. Giles mentioned that most independent newspaper in the islands circulated only between two thousand and five thousand copies a day because of the small population and limited accessibility of the islands. “We are a small island of around four lakh population and the media here is very small.” Elango said. “Whatever we publish remains within the island, and don’t go out to the nation. The officials feel that we are powerless that way.”