Since the beginning of the pandemic the Bihar government and the Bharatiya Janata Party have led a widespread crackdown on journalists who are critical of the government and those who documented how members of the ruling coalition broke the law, according to reporters in the state. At least ten journalists have faced cases under serious charges including criminal conspiracy and extortion. Journalists from the state told me that members of the BJP and the Bihar police have threatened them for their reporting as well. Journalists said that publications in the state have heavily censored reports by journalists that were critical of the ruling coalition. “In my 13-year-long career, I have never faced any such threats or FIRs, this is getting worse day by day,” Umesh Pandey, a reporter for the Hyderabad-based news channel ETV Bharat, told me.
On 14 May 2021, Pandey published a report that quoted Bihar government health officials. The report noted that Ashwini Choubey, the MP of Buxar from the BJP, was inaugurating five ambulance that he had already inaugurated, after changing their stickers. Choubey is currently the minister of state for health and family welfare. In March 2019, the hydroelectric power company SJVN had gifted the five ambulances to the Buxar district health committee as a part of their corporate-social responsibility efforts. SJVN is building a thermal power plant in the Chausa area of Buxar district, and local journalists told me the donation of ambulances helped improve the image of SJVN and the BJP ahead of the 2019 general elections.
Pandey told me that Choubey had inaugurated the ambulances in 2019, but they lay largely unused in Buxar’s Sadar hospital throughout the pandemic. Pandey’s report notes that Choubey and the Bihar government have taken multiple efforts to take the ambulances out of Buxar, but widespread pressure following media stories prevented this. The 14 May report which contained photos of the same ambulance with new stickers noted that Choubey was going to inaugurate the ambulance the following day with claims that they were part of a new drive to get more ambulances for the city during the peak of the second wave of COVID-19 in Bihar.
The following day Pandey reported from Buxar again, after the inauguration. His report quoted health officials and the driver of the ambulance who said that the ambulance had been inaugurated three times prior to this. It also noted that the ambulances had not been registered since they were first inaugurated in 2019. Pandey specified that he had tried to reach out to Choubey for a comment but had not received a response. Pandey’s second report went viral on social media in Bihar, and several other news organisations including Aaj Tak, Punjab Kesari and ABP News soon reported the story. Tejashwi Yadav, Bihar’s leader of opposition, had also tweeted Pandey’s story.
The story appeared at an inconvenient time for the Bihar wing of the BJP. Just a week prior to it being published, Pappu Yadav, the supremo of the opposition Jan Adhikar Party (Loktantrik), had claimed that Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the MP of Saran district from the BJP, had bought several ambulances under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme, which he had not used during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bihar. On 7 May, Pappu Yadav and his party cadre entered the premises of Rudy’s house where they shot videos showing thirty ambulances. The following day, Rudy released a video in which he claimed only 20 ambulances had been parked at his home and that he had been unable to deploy them because of a lack of drivers. Several journalists I spoke to said that the incident was an embarrassment for the BJP and they soon wanted to ensure that they are seen to be providing ambulances services efficiently across the state. “The Rudy issue is the main reason Choubey wanted to relaunch those old ambulances,” Pandey told me.