The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi interacting with the Print Media Journalists on tackling the challenge of COVID-2019 through video conference, in New Delhi on March 24, 2020.

Around six hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown, on 24 March, he personally asked over twenty owners and editors from the mainstream print media to publish positive stories about the COVID-19 pandemic. The owners and editors represented media organisations working in 11 different languages, including the senior-most members of national media houses such as the Indian Express Group, the Hindu Group and the Punjab Kesari Group. According to a report on Modi’s official website, the prime minister asked the participants to “act as a link between government and people and provide continuous feedback” on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The website further noted that in the interaction, which was conducted via videoconferencing and lasted an hour and a half, the prime minister emphasised that “it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumor. Citizens need to be assured the government is committed to countering the impact of COVID-19.”

Through the interaction, the prime minister’s website reported, Modi sat with a notebook and pen and could be seen taking down notes when the participants offered suggestions. The exercise almost represented the journalists as a part of the government, as opposed to being members of an institution whose job entailed questioning the government on its shortcomings. Instead, most of the owners and editors appeared grateful for the exchange. The prime minister’s website reported that the journalists committed to “work on the suggestions of the prime minister to publish inspiring and positive stories” about COVID-19. After the interaction, some owners and editors who were present in the meeting took to Twitter to thank the prime minister for making them a part of the videoconference and seeking their opinions, while others published reports on the meeting on the front page the next day, with photos of themselves and Modi on the television screen.

Following the conference, I spoke to nine owners and editors of media houses, from both national and regional media, who participated in the interaction. Almost all of them appeared enamoured by what some described as an important “gesture” from Modi, of considering their opinions.

I asked the owners and editors whether their interaction with Modi, given his suggestion to publish positive stories, would affect their editorial judgment while publishing a critical piece on the government’s policies for fighting the novel coronavirus. Only two of them explicitly said they would publish a critical piece despite the interaction, while three said they would not do so but for different reasons, not due to the interaction. One of them asked me to omit references to such questions while referring to our conversation in this report. Others refused to comment at all.

But a scrutiny of their organisations’ subsequent COVID coverage revealed that Modi’s words of caution had done the job—the newspapers were evidently uncritical of the government’s response to the virus. The coverage of the public-health crisis by these organisations contained little mention of the poor planning and disastrous implementation of the lockdown, or the government’s failure to prepare for the pandemic, such as by stockpiling crucial medical equipment for healthcare workers, despite early warnings by the World Health Organisation.

Viveck Goenka, the chairperson, managing director and editorial director of the Indian Express Group, was among Modi’s invitees to the videoconference. Goenka described the prime minister’s interaction with the media persons and his address to the nation later that day as unprecedented events. “Never before has a prime minister connected and communicated like him with the people of this country, you know, every stakeholder,” Goenka said. “So obviously he is leading from the front.” Referring to a statement by the Congress leader P Chidambaram, in which he supported the lockdown, Goenka added, “Pretty much like Chidambaram said, he is the commander in chief.”

While in comparison to other English-language national dailies the Indian Express has given more space to reports on the deaths of the poor due to the lockdown, its coverage hardly questioned the central government’s poor planning preceding Modi’s announcement. Instead, the paper reported the deaths either as an inevitable consequence of the lockdown or as incidents which the government could not have prevented. For instance, in a report about Delhi’s migrant workers scrambling to find buses and walking to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, there was no mention of what the government could have done in advance for such workers. The report called the exodus “an unfolding human crisis” to which the central and state governments responded by “ordering relief camps” and “arranging transportation.”

Following the videoconference with Modi, Malini Parthasarthy, the co-chairperson of the Hindu Group and the director of its editorial strategy team, tweeted:

We were privileged to be part of PM @narendramodi’s interaction with print media representatives. His strong commitment to ensure that India does not succumb to the COVID pandemic is demonstrable. He has strategic clarity on how to move forward. We are certainly in good hands!

Rishi Darda, the joint media director and editorial director of Lokmat Media, the publisher of a popular daily in Maharashtra, also participated in the interaction and tweeted about it afterwards. In a series of tweets, Darda posted several pictures that either showed him listening to Modi via videoconference, or had the prime minister and him both on a split screen.

Since the lockdown, Parthasarthy has tweeted positive articles published by The Hindu about the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These include reports titled, “There was no leniency in screening for foreign travelers, ‘prosperous Indians’, says Centre”; “US announces $174 mn aid to 64 countries including $2.9 mn to India”; and “With over 180 fresh cases in 24 hours, India shifts focus to hotspots.”

Parthasarthy refused to speak about her conversation with Modi, noting that “it was meant to be off the record, it was not meant to be spoken.” The Hindu’s coverage of the pandemic projects an image that every minister, department and ministry of the central government has been highly proactive in the fight against the virus. The few reports citing the government’s lack of preparation referred to it as allegations raised by opposition parties.

I also contacted Jaideep Bose, the editorial director of the Times of India, who was present in the conference. He refused to comment. The Times of India’s coverage since the lockdown has been far from even being informative, as the prime minister had suggested during the interaction. Instead, India’s most widely circulated English daily has reported that celebrities such as Akshay Kumar had donated to the prime minister’s COVID relief fund, that the television actress Hina Khan could sketch, and that Pakistani Hindus were being denied food during a lockdown in Karachi, among other things.

Among the English national dailies, the Hindustan Times’s coverage of the public-health crisis appeared to most diligently follow Modi’s suggestion on publishing “positive stories” and avoiding “negativity.” Shobhana Bhartia, the chairperson and editor of HT Media and publisher of the Hindustan Times, was also among the participants. Yet, when the newspaper published a four-column story about Modi’s conference the next day, the report attributed the conversations during the interaction as coming from two anonymous sources. In fact, the article did not quote or mention Bhartia while recounting the interaction, despite her having been a part of it.

Among the COVID-related articles published by the Hindustan Times, there were reports titled, “86 people in India beat Covid-19, nearly 10% of all coronavirus patients recover”; “Govt forms empowered groups, task force to deal with Covid-19 outbreak”; “Pregnant woman, her husband forced to walk over 100km without food; rescued by locals”; and “India’s relief package vs the world’s; what more can Modi government do?” None of these reports were critical of the government’s policies. While there undoubtedly are benefits of reporting feel-good stories during times of crisis, Bhartia and the Hindustan Times appeared to have taken a conscious decision not to question the government’s failings at all.

Modi’s interaction was not in the form of a press conference where the participating media owners and editors could, say, ask questions about the government’s measures to prepare for the increasing gravity of the crisis, or its insistence that India is not yet in the stage of community transmission despite doctors and public-health experts repeatedly challenging these claims. Instead, the exchange between the prime minister and the editors seemed to be to a platform where Modi could take the editors into his confidence and ask them what they thought should be done. It was not Modi’s only such interaction with journalists either. The previous day, Modi had held a similar meeting with senior television journalists. Following the lockdown, on 27 March, Modi also interacted with radio jockeys to issue the same advice he had tendered to the print media.

Not only journalists, even politicians who own media houses participated in the meeting without questioning it. In March 2019, Tathagat Satpathy, a former member of parliament from the Biju Janata Dal, and the publisher and editor of Dharitri, an Odia daily, and Orissa Post, a regional English daily, had announced that he was quitting active politics to focus on journalism. He, too, was part of the videoconference with print owners and editors. Modi “wanted to give an impression to all of us that, ‘I am there and I’m accessible to you people in this time of crisis,’” Satpathy said. He added that the prime minister urged the editors and media-house owners to “ensure that people remain calm.”

Satpathy said that Modi wanted the editors to use the “credibility” of the print media to stop the spread of fake news around COVID-19 and publish only “the truth.” When asked what he would do if the truth involved writing a critical piece on the government’s health policy—for instance, about its failure to stockpile personal protective equipment—Satpathy answered, “Nobody asked that” to the prime minister. He added, “Nobody has the spunk to do it. Let’s be honest.”

Orissa Post gave only one column to its report on the prime minister’s interaction. Satpathy claimed that Modi “didn’t dump any responsibility on print media” to publish only positive news on coronavirus. He said that he would publish critical stories as well, but when asked if he felt the other editors who participated in the interaction would do the same, Satpathy answered, “They would be hesitant.”

Satpathy explained his reading of the interaction. Modi “realised that print and especially other regional media has a reach … where television and other things couldn’t go,” he said. Satpathy believed that Modi was also trying to break his anti-media image, considering that he has never given a press conference, by communicating with media persons directly. “He has this knack,” Satpathy said, speaking about Modi’s people skills. He recounted how Modi would greet people, “‘Arey Satpathyji, namaste, we are missing you in Parliament.’ This is a very good technique of a leader, that he endears you. You feel like, oh my god, he remembers you. He is good at that.”

The former parliamentarian believed that Modi’s interaction with the print media should be interpreted as one guided by genuine concern. “I was surprised that he actually patiently heard every single person,” Satpathy said. “For the first time, I found him very positive. He was open and he surprised me, to be honest.”

Satpathy was one among multiple Oriya journalists to join the interaction. Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, a sitting parliamentarian from the Biju Janata Dal, and the editor and founder of Sambad, another popular Odia daily, said that Modi “took the print media in confidence, which is a good gesture.” Patnaik told me that there was no direction from Modi to not publish negative news, before adding that even if Modi had wanted that from the editors, it was not problematic to do so. “I don’t think anything is wrong with that,” he said. “Anybody who is fighting a matter like this would want everybody to be on board. And that’s what he was trying to do.”

Yet, Susanta Mohanty, the working editor of The Samaja, the most circulated Odia daily, seemed to have a contrary understanding of the interaction with Modi. He told me that after the meeting on 24 March, Mohanty instructed his editorial team that only positive news should be reported. “Actually, when the country is now facing a crisis, the prime minister wanted support from the media,” he said. “No negativity. Only positive news to educate readers … he just said that no negative news should be published at this juncture.”

An editor of one of the biggest south Indian print-media organisations, who was among those who interacted with the prime minister, spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. The editor told me that he did not think there was anything wrong in Modi’s interactions with the owners and editors, and added that he personally saw the media’s role “in times of crisis” as that of “a public service,” which should not involve “undue criticism” of the government.

The editor said that he would not hesitate before running a critical piece as long as the story did not create any “panic” among people. According to him, it was necessary for Modi to take the media on board because the public was not serious about the spread of the novel coronavirus at first. “Lot of people across the country thought the virus had gone” after the “janata curfew”—or people’s curfew—which took place on 22 March, the editor said. “They came out clapping their hands and then went about doing their work, back to crowding.”

Though the editors suggested that Modi’s suggestions during the interaction were not binding on them, it appeared that a failure to abide by them could invite consequences. On 28 March, thousands of migrant workers from in and around Delhi flocked to the national capital’s Anand Vihar bus terminal after the Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, announced that he had arranged for 200 buses to take workers to the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. That day, a news channel ran footage of the migrants jam-packed at the terminal. The same day, the editor told me, the ministry of information and broadcasting issued the channel a notice. “It just said, ‘Please avoid, be cautious,’” the editor told me.

I asked whether such notices put pressure on the organisation, and if it implied that running positive news stories on COVID-19 was not the bottom line of Modi’s interaction. The editor responded that he personally “did not get that impression.” But he was unable to explain why the government had served him a notice for showing visuals of migrants walking on foot. “I don’t know what they meant by ‘be cautious.’” He added that the government was providing buses only because the news channels were showing this footage. “If no channels show it, they won’t care about it at all,” he said. When I asked the editor if he was surprised that Modi reached out to the print media and not just the usual pro-government news channels such as Times Now or Republic, he said, “This is different, it’s not political.” The implication seemed to be that the prime minister recognised that print media was more credible than the usual pro-government channels, and that he only relied on the latter for political messaging.

None of the journalists were as brazen in supporting the prime minister as Avinash Chopra, the owner and editor of Punjab Kesari, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and western Uttar Pradesh. Chopra told me that he did not think the central government was lacking in any manner in its fight against COVID-19, and therefore he would not publish any critical pieces. “They did very fine, I wouldn’t be criticising them,” he said. “I would rather criticise state governments. If we look at northern states, none of the MLAs are sitting in their constituency, they are not interacting with people.”

Chopra praised Modi for his response throughout the interview. “He was the only prime minister” who could save the country, the editor of Punjab Kesari said. “He knows that India is not well-equipped, there are not enough ventilators to make our population safe if they get sick. I think he wanted to be like everyone to be understanding his problem and his limitations. So, I congratulated him.” Chopra said that during a phone call with the prime minister after the lockdown announcement, he told Modi, “You did a wonderful thing.”

Chopra was floored by the fact that the prime minister folded his hands while announcing the lockdown and appealing to the nation to stay at home. “No prime minister in the world has ever folded his hands,” he said. “That was very, you know—eight times folding his hands.” Punjab Kesari’s editor was so touched by the gesture that the next day his newspaper carried four pictures of Modi with his hands folded. The story was carried on the front page across half the spread, with the headline, “Aapko bachane ke liye baar-baar haath jodhte dikhe Modi”—To protect you, Modi was seen folding his hands again and again.

Chopra told me that he has known Modi since the 1990s, when the current prime minister was “an incharge of several northern states” as a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s parent organisation. “He has been to our press a number of times when he was in the RSS and then in the BJP,” Chopra told me. Punjab Kesari’s coverage of COVID-19 included a piece titled, “Corona se ladane ke liye Modi mantra, PM ne 3D video ke jariye diye ghar mein fit rehne ke tips”—Modi’s mantra to fight corona, PM gives tips to stay fit at home with a 3D video.

The other editors who joined Modi’s interaction included Gulab Kothari, the editor-in-chief of Rajasthan Patrika; Ramoji Rao, the owner of the Telugu daily Eenadu; Ananda Sankeshwar, the managing director and editor of the Kannada daily Vijayavani; and Vemuri Radhakrishna, the owner of Andhrajyothy. Like others, these editors, too, seemed grateful for the interaction, and published reports of the interaction with their photos the next day. Kothari wrote about the meeting on his blog and reproduced that blogpost on the front page of his newspaper. He noted that Modi had “inspired” the press with this interaction. Yet, going by the responses given by the editors, and their subsequent coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, it appeared that the prime minister inspired most of them to abandon a basic tenet of journalism—to speak truth, not positivity, to power.

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