Pandemic, the Press and the New Digital Order
As the second wave of the Covid pandemic surged across South Asia in early 2021, journalists found themselves in the thick of the storm, without a safety net and scant institutional support. Battling not only the deadly virus, they mounted stiff resistance to states trying to control the narrative and plaster over the horrific reality. Journalists breaking stories of rising deaths, collapsing health systems and unpreparedness and mismanagement at the highest levels of government were silenced, hounded, arrested and penalised.
Even as journalists also mourned the loss of their colleagues and family members, they continued to work in the most challenging circumstances to publicise the truth. They reported from the frontlines without adequate protective equipment, exposing themselves to infection to tell stories of the suffering in hospitals, in graveyards and crematoria. Many fell ill, many others continue to suffer from the long-term impacts of the Covid syndrome. Hundreds of others succumbed, unsung heroic storytellers of the apocalypse that engulfed them.
To many others continued to tell one of the biggest stories of our times, while also enduring salary cuts and delays in wage payments, denial of protective personal equipment, medical insurance or reimbursement of massive medical bills to treat Covid contracted in the line of duty. Huge numbers of media workers were also rendered jobless or forced to resign in the wake of economic impacts of Covid-19. reeling under arrests and cases of sedition and terror, unrelenting trolling and abuse online, they wrote on. Some wrote on, even without a job or payment.
Charges of “anti-national”, “against national security” were widely used to curb dissent through archaic laws of sedition and colonial era laws of epidemic control. With courts admitting petitions challenging the constitutionality of some of these laws, there is reason to hope for change.
The raging pandemic, accompanying lockdowns and economic crises were only piled on to existing barriers that the region’s journalists already faced. Physical attacks and intimidation, lack of access to information, control and censorship; sharpened ethnic and religious cleavages; legal repercussions for their stories and an overall precarity of the media. Impunity for crimes against journalists continued, despite small gains. Yet, journalists bore witness and told the stories that needed to be told, with professional integrity, compassion and deep humanity.
Tightening regulation and digital controls
Controlling the flow of information seemed to be an overriding preoccupation of governments across the region. From reigning in the burgeoning independent digital media and clamping down on critical voices on social media, governments and social media platforms fell short of upholding freedom of expression at a critical juncture.
At a time when the free flow of information was literally a matter of life and death, governments intolerant of critical questions, tended to use the pandemic as a pretext to curb information, and any opinion that was deemed “anti-government”. Social media presented a particular anxiety for governments trying to curb dissent, and unfortunately, social media giants did not adequately protect citizen’s right to free speech, instead complying with unreasonable takedown notices from governments.
Pakistan suffered under the harshest clampdown on dissent by any government. Media rights and freedom of expression took a severe beating, with the government seemingly leaping at the opportunity to deprive the media of both freedom and funds, driving an already beleaguered media industry into deeper crisis. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) which criminalises free speech and gives overarching powers to law enforcement authorities, was overused in Pakistan to clamp down on free speech. The media, political opponents, activists and members of the public found the boundaries of free speech indiscriminately scrunched in violation of constitutional guarantees.
Arbitrary blocking of independent websites, internet and communication shutdowns were regularly deployed to censor the media. This inevitably led to the proliferation of misinformation – which Pakistan could ill-afford in the midst of not only the pandemic, but civil strife and political upheaval. Cutting off connectivity in politically sensitive areas in an attempt to censor news had other adverse effects during the lockdown, mainly on health and education.
In Bangladesh, it took the tragic custodial death in February 2021, of writer Mushtaq Ahmed incarcerated for ten months and repeatedly denied bail, to once more shine the spotlight on the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) which has been widely used against journalists, bloggers and citizens to penalise free speech and critical opinion. The lone Cyber Crimes Tribunal, reeling under a staggering pending case load can barely manage due process in hearing cases, leave aside render justice.
In India, besides the time-honoured tactic of internet shutdowns to cut communications, the newly promulgated Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 gave the government the power to censor, order takedowns and block content without any recourse to appeal. Independent digital platforms termed the rules not just unconstitutional, but a blow to democracy itself, and have challenged this attempt at over-regulation in the highest court in the country. In addition to its attempt to control independent digital media, fast emerging as major players in the media landscape, the Indian government came down strongly on social media expression deemed to be critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. In the same vein, the new media Policy in Jammu and Kashmir (downgraded from state to centrally administered union territory in April 2019), issued in June 2020, was immediately viewed with disquiet by journalists, given that it empowers government officers to take action on “fake news” or “anti-national content”.
Allegations of misinformation and rumour mongering were thrown at journalists and even citizens exposing the horrific ground reality of acute shortage of medical supplies, oxygen, overflowing hospitals and crematoria. Significantly, while content critical of the government was taken down, virulent hate speech against minorities and misogynist speech online thrived in India. Social media platforms Twitter and Facebook too succumbed to takedown requests by the government, failing to stand up for free speech.
Across the region, governments displayed a remarkable disrespect towards the media, and took steps to increase regulation. In Nepal, the government moved ahead with tougher bills and regulations such as the Media Council Bill, the Public Service Broadcasting Bill, the Information Technology Bill, and the Special Service Bill – all of which have clauses that could undermine press freedom. The clampdown on social media has been proposed on pretexts of the “country’s sovereignty, security, unity or harmony”. The Media Council Bill could erode the autonomy of the media, with government-appointed regulators, a provision that has been vehemently opposed by media rights organisations.
The international norm of self-regulation by media was also violated in Sri Lanka, where in January 2021, the Cabinet of Ministers proposed to amend the Press Council Law to include electronic and new media and approved a proposal to ‘structurally reform and reorganise’ the Press Council to cover electronic and new media. The move was criticised by the Professional Web Journalists’ Association which argued that the electronic and new media should be not controlled, but self-regulated with a stringent code of ethics developed by the media community itself.
Livelihood in peril
The pandemic year was also witness to dramatic loss of jobs in the media, across the region. Over 8,000 of Pakistan’s estimated 20,000 journalists lost their jobs in 2020 alone, and rural and district staff were more likely to be retrenched.
Journalists, mainly through the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), remained up in arms for most of the year and in early 2021 launched an “enough is enough” campaign across the country to protest job losses, pay cuts, censorship and rising intimidation. The media industry found new external supporters, including the legal community and civil society in institutional and organised partnerships with PFUJ to jointly resist the rising attacks on media freedoms, journalists’ rights and public interest journalism in Pakistan.
In India, which saw a series of retrenchments from March 2020 onwards, there are no clear numbers of the job losses or salary cuts. Estimates put the figures in the thousands. Besides layoffs, salary cuts and delays in payments, media houses also threatened to sack staff if they wanted to work from home. The obstinacy of many managements led to staff in some media houses getting infected with the coronavirus en masse. Journalists from the regional press were harder hit, with fewer paying options than their English media counterparts.
The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) took up more than 500 complaints relating to job loss and non-payment of salary in Nepal. A survey conducted by the FNJ in September 2020, revealed the desperate state of Nepal’s journalists: the earning of 40 percent of journalists was affected by the pandemic and the nationwide lockdowns and women journalists were more severely impacted. Several media houses in Kathmandu suspended publications, cut down broadcast hours and decreased the size of the newspapers. The revenue of 75 percent of the once vibrant radio sector decreased due to the pandemic.
The story was no different in Bangladesh where an estimated 1,250 journalists lost their jobs and several thousand faced salary cuts or irregular payments. While media owners blamed the pandemic for the drop in revenue and resultant salary cuts, trade unionists say that irregular payments were a norm of a section of media houses which then grasped at the pandemic as a justification to deny journalists their rights.
The pandemic crisis however, only added to existing pressures that journalists across the region face. A major threat being the increasing polarisation on communal lines.
South Asia has ravaged by religious, ethnic and caste divides for decades, but the growing cleavages of the last few years have been unprecedented. With hyper-nationalist parties in power in many countries in the region drawing votes and support from religiously aligned groups, the polity too has been sharply divided. Minorities in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have been particularly vulnerable, in this context of majoritarian politics. These divisions have inevitably affected the media. While some sections have added to the problem by exacerbating divisions and amplifying hate, others have had to struggle to remain independent.
Existing fault lines were exacerbated by external situations that are likely to impact the whole region. The proposed withdrawal of US-NATO troops from Afghanistan by the coming September is feared to increase the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan, a development that could have a ripple effect in the region in terms of encouraging radicalism. Hard worn democratic and secular gains could be pushed back, with a direct impact on the media and individual journalists. Likewise, growing communalism in India, encouraged by the government in power, has a dangerous spill over effect in the neighbourhood, contributing to more polarisation and the strengthening of extremist groups. The media cannot be immune from attack, even as it attempts to uphold constitutional values, and the rights of women, minorities and the marginalised.
Religion in the Maldives is a no-go topic in public discourse, and the fear of being labelled anti-Islam contributes to the journalists practicing self-censorship of forgoing bylines while reporting on extremism in the country. As part of official control, the Communications Authority of Maldives blocks websites with anti-Islamic content upon request by ministries and other agencies. Though social media use is growing, intimidation and deaths threats pose the greatest challenge for free expression online. The yet unsolved murders of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and blogger Yameen Rashid known for their vocal criticism of religious fundamentalism are grim reminders of the risks of speaking out for religious freedom or minority rights. In its World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch accused the government of failing to confront the influence of hard-line Islamist groups. “Online intimidation of human rights groups continued to have a chilling effect on civil society in 2020,” and reiterated calls to tackle hate speech and violence online.
The state response to tackling religious extremism however, often has serious implications for freedom of expression and civil rights. In Sri Lanka, the Prevention of Terrorism (De-radicalisation from Holding Violent Extremist Religious Ideology) Regulations were issued in march 2021, expanding on the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Powers given to authorities to detain and ‘rehabilitate’ anyone who ‘by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations’ causes the commission of violence or ‘religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups’ is prone to misuse, fear activists. The spate of arrests in cases of hate speech, mostly of Tamil and Muslim minorities further reinforces this apprehension of selective use of power by law enforcement agencies.
Women journalists in the firing line
The rampant vitriol and violence online were particularly targeted at women journalists in the region. Pakistani women journalists had a rough year, facing unrelenting abuse by organised troll armies, many backed by members of the ruling party, prompting them to release a petition taking the government to account. Similar was the case across the border in India, where online abuse took a heavy toll in an already stressful year of the pandemic. Sexist abuse, misogyny and spillover of online to offline stalking and violence became the price that women journalists paid for speaking out.
The marginalised existence of women journalists in South Asia’s media community is itself one of the factors contributing to precarity. A report released in early 2020 by the South Asia Women’s Network, showed that women accounted for only 29 per cent of staff in Maldives media organisations. Only five per cent leadership roles were occupied by women. Paradoxically, the enrolment of women in journalism courses in the Maldives was higher than men at 3:1. This data begs the question: where do these professional women vanish? The answer probably lies in another finding of the study: women face immense discrimination, harassment and bullying at the workplace.
Nepali women journalists too faced character assassination, body shaming, speculation about sexual links with prominent men, with women journalists from marginalised communities such as Madhesi and Dalit are more intensive attack. Women journalists fought back, and refused to be silenced, speedily blocking abusers, reporting them and also using aliases to move forward and express themselves online.
Patchy access to information
Almost all countries in South Asia sought to tighten controls over access to information, denying journalists a basic tool for accurate reporting. In Afghanistan, despite an Access to Information Law passed in 2014 and amended in 2018, there are barriers to information access. The setting up of an independent Information Access Commission with 65 government-level departments to assist in the transfer of information from government offices to the media, is potentially a step towards easing access. However, implementation remains a question, given other moves that restrict access, for example the 2020 restrictions authorising only governors to share information with the media, thus creating huge bottlenecks. Moreover, with the imminent withdrawal of the US-NATO troops in the coming year, the barriers to accessing information regarding the opaque agencies of security, justice and peace will undoubtedly impact credible reporting at this crucial juncture.
In Bhutan, access to information is still wrapped up in red-tape and complicated bureaucratic procedure in a hierarchical set up, necessitating permissions to record videos or take a photo. Besides media persons, researchers and scholars in Bhutan are also coming up against the same obstacles. Free speech and expression as well as pursuit of research are thus impeded by official barriers.
Despite the passage of the Right to Information Act in the Maldives six years ago, a culture of secrecy persists and journalists are hard put to access information from certain state agencies. A survey by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives released in December 2020 showed that a majority of people were dissatisfied with access to official information and only 36 percent found the right to information law to have been helpful.
In India, the repercussions of the 2019 amendments to the once robust Right to Information Act could be seen during the pandemic when access to information was vital – access to data on funds, vaccine roll out and health infrastructure was repeatedly blocked by official agencies and the Central Information Commission did little to enable the flow of critical information.
Likewise, Sri Lanka too witnessed the dilution of its Right to Information Commission, which could affect its independent functioning.
Despite the relentless battles on several fronts, while struggling to stay afloat, South Asian journalists valiantly put up a resistance to the onslaught on media rights in all countries of the region. Challenges in court, mobilising and collective action despite the restrictions in mobility and the overwhelming public health crisis, were evidence of a spirited defiance.
The attempt to control the digital space by governments in several countries in the region was met with a heartening push back. In Pakistan, independent online journalism platforms together formed the Digital Media Alliance of Pakistan (DigiMAP) to challenge and resist the state’s increasing authoritarianism on national dialogues initiated by grassroots communities. DigiMAP represents the emerging bold new ecosystem of independent media start-ups that have taken it upon themselves to champion the cause of public interest journalism that the legacy media has been forced to surrender before an increasingly hostile state. DigiMAP also put out a strong statement against the new digital regulations.
Despite the burgeoning digital media in India and its vital role in promoting independent journalism, there was until now no single body representing the digital news media. Eleven digital media organisations came together in October 2020 to launch the DIGIPUB News India Foundation “to represent, amplify and evolve best practices to build a robust digital news ecology that is truly world-class, independent and upholds the highest standards of journalism,” One of its first actions was to challenge the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 in court, as an infringement of freedom of expression.
A strong pushback to the curtailment of hard-won rights was witnessed among women journalists in Pakistan. In March 2021 the Women Journalists Association (WJA) was launched as a spirited response to the unrelenting online violence and abuse directed them and demanded a special desk to deal with online harassment cases of women journalists in the Federal Investigation Agency Cyber Crime Cell. It demanded allocation of at least 33 percent seats in all journalists’ bodies in the country, including the PFUJ and press clubs. WJA also called for gender audit of media organisations to assess the number of women journalists who have lost their jobs during current media crisis and demanded availability of basic facilities at the workplace.
In the Maldives, after years of a fractured media community, the need for a collective voice was addressed in September 2020 with the revival of the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA), which had been dormant since a split in its membership in 2014. Starting on a Zoom platform due to restrictions of mobility during the pandemic, the revived collective holds promise to stand firm for media rights.
The one certainty that holds amid the looming uncertainty in the midst of the pandemic is that mobilisation and a collective approach is the only strategy to retain hard-won media rights and push the envelope to broaden the frontiers of free speech.