Viral Vulnerabilities Exposed:
Covid-19’s Impact on Newsrooms in South Asia

Hindu devotees light oil lamps in memory of deceased family members during the Bala Chaturdashi festival, in Kathmandu on December 13, 2020.

A community of first responders, journalists are considered to be ever-prepared and resilient. But nothing could have prepared the journalists across the globe to battle the Covid-19 virus.

When the pandemic hit, besides the challenge of having to deal with a global health emergency, media workers and journalists had to learn how to practice their craft under the “new normal” in the shadow of the fear of exposure to infection. There were senior editors who recalled covering wars, conflict and natural disasters, none of which prepared them to live through and cover a global pandemic. 

As first responders, journalists need to “move” the story. Newsrooms in South Asia were unprepared to cover the pandemic due to multiple challenges: lockdowns; restrictions on movement; denial of physical access and inadequacy of reliable information were only a few. There was a tsunami of misinformation threatening newsroom editorial functions while demanding exceptional skills to deal with the high voltage disinformation.  

A tsunami of misinformation

“The biggest practical challenge was to learn how to report the Covid-19 story – and to respond to the huge volume of misinformation,” says Kamal Siddiqi, executive director of the Karachi-based Center for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ). 

If the main challenge was about how to cover the multi-dimensional pandemic, newsroom literacy proved abysmally low with many unable to undertake health reporting while a deluge of misinformation was circulating on social media. 

As the infodemic raged on, there were more practical issues to be dealt with. Those undertaking field reporting had no previous experience to learn from. “There were no mentors for pandemic reporting,” said Abdul Ziath, a freelance Maldivian journalist who said nobody could effectively guide reporters “simply because nobody had that experience.” Having no SOPs, new procedures had to be evolved – but without a full understanding of the complexity of the global health emergency and in the early days, the ways in which the virus could be transmitted.  

In most places, Covid field reporting, especially photojournalism, meant risking oneself to exposure while accessing hospitals, morgues, public spaces or quarantine centres with increased exposure to infection. 

Many a newsroom lacked not just SOPs but also PPEs, increasing vulnerability of ground reporters and often, these requirements were considered inconsequential in the need to stay on top of the story. Many journalists had no insurance, feared for the safety of their families when returning home from work and had to deal with extensive occupational stress. 

For freelancers and stringers, this meant having to accept assignments without any institutional support. In South Asia, the owner’s duty towards employees appeared minimal.  

With thousands of journalists reporting occupational stress due to work conditions and the altered reality, the media owners’ response were layoffs and cuts, creating immense job insecurity. When it came to job shedding or thinning, women too often were considered the most dispensable based on the notion that women were not family bread winners. The pandemic also reinforced the industry stereotypes and often accorded priority to male journalists. Journalists have also spoken of stress caused by isolation and lack of opportunity to undertake field assignments, the altered reality aggravating occupational stress.  

The print media industry appears to have taken the brunt without advertisements and circulation. Lean teams multitasking and doing double shifts for less emoluments soon became the norm across the region.  

Pandemic propelled digitalisation

While there were far more challenges than solutions, the pandemic decidedly pushed the media industry to reboot and propelled digitalization. As the media start-up culture sweeps across Asia, some of the old media models have been seriously challenged while new business models have emerged in response. 

Journalists were also compelled to report from surreal conditions without having physical access to places while health reporting became more important than ever before. Due to the surfeit of disinformation, newsrooms have now begun paying greater attention to tool-based verifications, a departure from the traditional approach, leading to more streamlined fact-checking processes giving birth too many new fact-checking initiatives across the region.   

Meanwhile, despite daunting challenges, journalists have told the pandemic story at great risk to themselves, with some of them eventually paying with their lives. Journalists have also responded by learning new tools for effective reporting, adapted to remote reporting and have striven to educate themselves on the science. Fact-checking got more rigorously mainstreamed in order to push back against the overload of fake information.

South Asia’s authoritarian regimes have responded by tightening of regulations and threatening new laws against “fake news” besides using pandemic backdrop to control freedom of expression and increase surveillance, making Covid coverage a daunting challenge as the second deadly wave engulfs the region.

Below are the personal narratives of the region’s journalists at the frontlines, in editors’ chairs, organising, training and surviving Covid-19. These poignant testimonies provide but a tiny glimpse of how intrepid journalists overcame all odds to do their jobs, with professionalism and commitment. 

When everyone is a health reporter

Kamal Siddiqi
Director, Center for Excellence in Journalism, Karachi, Pakistan
Founding editor, Express Tribune

Possibly the biggest challenge that journalists faced in 2020 was the information gap caused by the lack of awareness and training on how to report on the Covid pandemic. What made things worse was that as journalists were struggling with the absence of PPEs, the ignorance of SOPs and the fear of risking their lives by going into the field, fake news started to take over. 

With the medical profession itself struggling with information it could accurately share, this was a time when half-baked stories and rumours started to circulate with speed.  The badly needed training on how to report the pandemic was missing.

Journalists had to make do with a wide variety of somewhat conflicting information and ended up relying on their own sources and common sense on what and how to report.

But this started to change as some brave reporters decided to go back into the field and report on how things were shaping up. Holding the government accountable, making sense of the confusing statements from the medical profession and exposing the half-truths circulating on social media was how they fought back after the passage of some months.

They rose to the challenge. By sharing information and resources and by calling out those spreading disinformation, journalists were finally able to inform the public accurately. 

By this time, Covid was no more a health reporter’s story. It crossed over into many beats and reporters finally realised that the best way to report accurately was to pool their resources and share information. This helped get them back on track. They started to win the battle against fake news.

Shining a light

Rajneesh Bhandari
Multimedia journalist, investigative reporter, filmmaker
Founder & chief editor, Nepal Investigative Multimedia Journalism Network, Nepal

I have never seen Nepali media and journalists being affected as badly during my 15-year journalism career. Things were not this distressful even during the Nepal earthquake in 2015. As I am involved in training and mentoring journalists from all over Nepal, they tell me that they are going through many challenges and problems due to the pandemic. 

Because of the current crisis, many media outlets in Nepal have been shut down, many have shifted to digital publications, and many haven’t been able to resume print publications. There have been layoffs and salaries have been cut down, and many journalists aren’t paid on time. Assignments for local stringers in provinces have decreased and they haven’t been paid for many months. Even international media outlets have cut down the number of assignments handed to freelancers. 

Despite all these challenges, journalists in Nepal are covering stories by going to the field even without protective gear and risking their lives. Media outlets don’t provide safety equipment like PPEs. The effort they have put in to tell the stories and inform their audiences in these difficult times is praiseworthy. 

Amidst the pandemic, with the objective of supporting journalists we launched the Nepal Investigative Multimedia Journalism Network (NIMJN), a non-profit that supports advanced investigative multimedia reporting to produce collaborative investigative stories. 

We trained 49 journalists on safety and fact-checking; provided more than 100 journalists and frontline workers with safety gear and PPE sets, and provided grants to 23 journalists to do collaborative investigative journalism. This is of course just a drop in the ocean. Journalists in Nepal require more capacity enhancement training and workshops, sadly the opportunities and are very limited and, corporate media isn’t investing in it. 

Media outlets – both in Nepal and in South Asia, need emergency plans to handle events such as the recent pandemic. Our main goal should be to hold the people in power accountable and despite the challenges, this year saw journalists making the effort to shine a light even as they feared for their own safety.

Green shoots in the pain

Pamela Philipose
Public editor, The & former senior associate editor of The Indian Express, India 

A hitherto unknown virus went on to touch every life on the planet regardless of class, caste, gender, age, location, causing widespread death and despair. Journalists become custodians of people’s safety in such times and their contributions, immeasurably valuable. Yet, as the struggle to control the public narrative played out during the pandemic, state governments, media managements and vigilante groups attempted to use, abuse, co-opt and suborn the media.

In India, once the government announced a punishing lockdown with a notice of four hours in mid-March 2020, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from metropolitan centres had no recourse but to walk back to their homes in towns and villages. This was a major story of state callousness and human misery and the media did try to cover its many dimensions. Before long, the government approached the Supreme Court for an order to ban them from reporting on the disease without official clearance, referring to journalists as “vultures” who spread “public panic”. I believe this move, combined with the detention, arrests and firing of journalists, played a huge role in tamping down ground reporting at a time when it was most needed. 

In this climate of public anxiety, it was easy for misinformation to circulate. I remember, for instance, as the virus ravaged China in early 2020, the Indian social media carried stories claiming India would be spared Covid-19 because it was vegetarian. Despite experts denying links between the consumption of meat and the disease, the argument gained salience and was used to stigmatise anyone who looked Chinese, just as later Muslims came to be specifically targeted in a climate of Hindu-Muslim polarisation. The media, under pressure from business interests, also contributed to the promotion of fake remedies, and the exploitation of the pandemic for private profit. 

The picture is not all bleak, however. Truly extraordinary has been the work of colleagues who risked their lives to uncover the human dimensions of the pandemic and educate themselves on its science. Fact-checking got more rigorously mainstreamed in order to push back against the overload of fake information. In that sense this period of great pain and pathos also saw green shoots that should enrich the journalism of the future.

Curve balls and credibility

Hana Ibrahim
Editor, Daily Express and Weekend Express, Sri Lanka

The year 2020 has been one of curve balls that have forced the print media to reassess itself and accept some painful realities, not just about the future but also about ethical standards and credibility. Of course, the biggest curve ball has been the Covid-19 pandemic which has had a cascading effect, from loss of revenue to downsizing of newsrooms, leading to layoffs, amalgamation of publications, shutdowns, salary cuts and heavier workloads for many. The virus has forced the slimming down of newspaper offices, trimming it of mostly young recruits and trainees. How this would play out in the future is left to be seen.

Disconcertingly, the Covid-curve ball also laid bare the biases, political, ethnic and racial, of the media, exposing how little credence most media houses gave to good journalism and how easily ethical standards and good journalism guidelines can be kicked curb-side in pursuit of delivering the most sensational newsbyte. This was evident in how the media, especially the electronic media, invaded the privacy of the Covid-infected and the families of the dead, assigned blame on a particular community, group or establishment with scant evidence, and promoted miracle potions as Covid-cures with no scientific evidence.

The pandemic demanded honest coverage from the media, but in a scenario where the narrative was, and continues to be, controlled by the state authorities, and access to information remains restricted, the media has become mere mouth pieces, parroting or paraphrasing official statements and comments. I fear, with the government turning increasingly authoritarian, and the space for dissent diminishing, things are not likely to change anytime in the near future.

On a positive note, 2020 forced the print media to embrace a digital and electronic reality far sooner than would have been envisaged. Hopefully it will also instil a need for fact-based ethical journalism and help the media regain its lost credibility.

My tryst with the virus

Bikash Karki
Central committee member, Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) & leader, Photojournalists’ Club, Nepal

On March 24, 2020, a few days after the first coronavirus case was detected, Nepal went into lockdown. Only a day before, I had initiated a discussion at Annapurna Post, where I was the photo editor, on how to continue working in case of lockdown. 

I was concerned because photojournalism as profession demands work in field. I had more responsibilities as I was also leading the photojournalists’ union – the Photojournalists’ Club, an associate union of IFJ-affiliated Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ). The club issued a 10-point guideline based on the WHO protocol and requested media houses to provide safety equipment for photojournalists.

Like every other family, my family was also scared of coronavirus, which was aggravated by the nature of my work. The fear that I may transmit infection to my family always indirectly impacted my work. It became routine to carry of packet of instant noodles and a bottle of water, leave home early and return late and upon return, leave my clothes and equipment in a separate room and spray sanitizer on them. 

My family tried to persuade me to leave the job, but I felt a responsibility to tell the public about what was happening around them. However, when my publication did not provide the safety equipment and even didn’t pay my salary on time, it became hard. Through the club, with donations, we collected 3,000 face masks, 500 sanitizers and provided all photojournalists and their family members with coronavirus infection insurance.

In late April, my publication announced a 50 per cent salary cut despite protests from the chief editor, bureau chiefs and myself. Even our halved salary was not paid for three months but I continued with my duty. The chief editor resigned over the disagreement and after the new editor was appointed, remote login to office system was cut for me and five other journalists. Our salary remained unpaid and six of us were transferred to a newly-formed special investigative bureau and were targeted for opposing salary cuts. The FNJ which took up these issues on our behalf.

I continued submitting photos through email but we were transferred to remotest part of the country and asked to leave immediately even though there was no transport due to the lockdown. While carrying out my professional duties, fighting for our rights, supporting other photojournalists and staff of Nagarik who were on a sit-demanding their salary, I contracted coronavirus. Though I had followed all safety protocols – wearing masks at all times, using sanitizer and keeping distance – during a late dinner, I noticed I had lost my sense of taste. Thankfully, my wife had taken my little son to her parental house a week ago, so I was sure I did not transmit it to them, but difficult days were ahead.

Coronavirus infection caused health problems that I had not experienced before: headache, fever, loss of taste and tiredness. And, then there was the psychological side of it: the fear that anything could happen. I obsessively checked my temperature and oxygen levels every hour. All this at a time when I was receiving letters with threats from my office. 

I decided to move into hotel isolation despite it being costlier because I thought if there was an emergency, the hotel staff would be trained to take me to the hospital, and there were some Covid-19 positive journalist friends staying there. The isolation was difficult because I was on my own wondering about what lay ahead. At times, I even thought I might not live to see the future. The helplessness – being unable to do anything to improve your health, not knowing what helps and waiting for an unknown future – was difficult to bear.

After a week or so, I was tested Covid negative and I could finally walk out of isolation and meet my family. But I was still feeling weak, and I had to continue fighting for my rights and dues at the Annapurna Post.

We had a case at the Labor Court, we had a complaint at the Office of the Press Registrar, and the FNJ and journalist community was with us in the struggle. The Working Journalists Act has never been fully implemented, but we were glad that it had enough provisions that protects journalists if we continue our fight in the court of law. Sit-ins and protest actions continued alongside. 

The Annapurna Post finally negotiated. Although less than our rightful dues, it was a victory for journalists, the FNJ and the community. I have since resigned from the Annapurna Post and have been elected as the Central Committee member of the FNJ and I will continue to fight for the rights of the journalists.

Crisis drives digitalisation

Lubna Jerar Naqvi
Journalist & fact checker
Vice president, Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ), Pakistan

In the year of the coronavirus, many things changed in the media faster than expected – some good, some of it bad.  

The good news for the Pakistani media was its significant evolution from traditional to digital – with a large number of journalists making the switch to digital media. Digital media and online journalism have posed a challenge to the monopoly of legacy media due to being less constrained but the pandemic saw a shift, a crisis response that was futuristic.  

In the year of the pandemic, I was among those who undertook freelance journalism, which I found refreshing, exciting and challenging. Last year decidedly altered the way we practice journalism, forcing us to become innovative in order to deal with remote reporting amidst movement restrictions and the fear of exposure to the virus. 

Covid-19 also challenged me in newer ways and propelled me to deepen my understanding of health journalism. The pandemic has proved an eye-opener, making us look beyond our beats and we all had to reflect the multiple crises triggered by the global pandemic. Did we ever think that we would be covering a health crisis of such proportions, and at this global scale?  

We also saw how unsafe our workplaces were. It opened new discussions on the role and responsibilities of media owners and managers. 

Pakistani journalists worked under dire conditions and at great risk to themselves. Little wonder that we had a number of journalists contracting the virus. The absence of SOPs and the non-provision of PPEs when sending journalists on assignment exposed the systemic issues within the media industry. I witnessed how unprepared the newsrooms were to cover the pandemic and how carelessly journalists were being sent out, without no preparation or equipment, thus exposing them to the virus. 

The pandemic also exposed the absence of care at the owners’ level.  There have been many lay-offs at the height of the pandemic when everyone needed more financial stability and social security.  Women were the first to be laid off as employers considered them as not the “main earners” in a family.  The occupational stress of having to balance work with exposure to the virus was high. The working conditions and the lack of support system caused serious problems with journalists’ mental health. Several deaths were linked to mental stress.

It’s also been a time of massive disinformation. The global pandemic gave rise to life-threating levels of disinformation. This deluge was difficult to counter due to the sheer volume.Much of it was bad science which impacted people who needed information and were swayed by sensational information. 

It marked a second shift in my career as I began fact-checking across various digital platforms – Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter and constantly posting stories on the WhatsApp – where most people post fake content – with verified content and exposing fakes. It was the virus that propelled me on this new career path, a challenging and much-needed one.

Democratic gains reversed

Seetha Ranjanee
Convener, Free Media Movement (FMM), Sri Lanka

The lockdown came as a shock. As an activist accustomed to constant mingling with people and outdoor activity, the restriction on movement proved distressing. The first few weeks were spent trying to come to terms with the new normal and re-think ways to overcome the forced isolation.

The Sri Lankan media industry reflected the global crisis, with layoffs and salary cuts. The newspaper industry had its distribution stalled as a precautionary measure and the digital sections of such newsrooms became more active, though not very successfully. Digital publications in contrast, lost the little online advertising they had, with both the mainstream and alternative going into crisis mode.  

Besides the serious economic implications of layoffs, salary cuts and cancellation of allowances and so on, job safety itself became a serious concern for journalists this year. Journalists were made to feel expendable and retaining their jobs became a priority focus –but at what cost? They took huge risks with their assignments, exposing themselves to infection with the employers not meeting their minimum safety requirements. 

The pandemic also triggered unethical reporting with journalists actively contributing to hate speech and stigmatisation through discriminatory portrayals and generally insensitive reporting. At a time when people needed authentic information, responsible and insightful reporting took a nosedive, thus increasing the space for disinformation and propaganda.   

The Sri Lankan government used the pandemic to reverse some key democratic gains by pushing the 20th amendment to the constitution allowing increased concentration of power. The independent commissions and the appointing body, the Constitutional council, were made redundant with the president being empowered to make appointments to key public institutions, thus undermining previous attempts to depoliticize public institutions.  These undemocratic trends have also caused an erosion in freedom of expression with media being placed under the microscope. 

The great leap to digital first

Zafar Sobhan
Editor, Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh

Will 2020 go down as the year everything changed for Bangladeshi newspapers? It was certainly the year that the bottom fell out of print circulation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Print circulation numbers had been in freefall for years, but 2020 saw the industry’s already attenuated numbers drop by half, and most of the readers who stopped buying newspapers are not coming back.

On the flipside, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t demand for what we produce. To the contrary. Total circulation, of which now upwards of 90 per cent is online, has gone through the roof. Yesterday Dhaka Tribune had 350,000 unique visitors to our site, a new record. 

So, the Covid-19 crisis has merely accelerated what we all knew was coming: the industry’s transformation from print-first to digital-first.

Together with this transformation has been the transformation in operations and procedures, with work becoming decentralised and the traditional news desk and newsroom becoming de-emphasised, if not obsolete. It has been hard to operate in this “new normal” without everything revolving around a centralised command structure, but again, this was the direction newsrooms had to go anyway.

The challenges of reporting during a pandemic – from gathering facts while protecting one’s own safety to figuring out how to operate during periods of lockdown to the government using the excuse of the crisis to refuse to share information and to clamp down on what it perceived to be negative news – have been considerable. 

But I am enormously proud, not just of my own reporters, but of the entire industry, working long hours to tirelessly uncover important stories, at considerable risk to their own health and safety, putting in the extra effort to ensure that Bangladeshi public remains well-informed and that the authorities are held accountable during this crucial time.

If the main challenge was about how to cover the multi-dimensional pandemic, newsroom literacy proved abysmally low with many unable to undertake health reporting while a deluge of misinformation was circulating on social media.