Pandemic Reporting: Global Arrests While Over 200 Indian Journalists Have Died of COVID-19
In the eye of the storm: How can media hold government accountable? Global Health Centre/ Health Policy Watch Panel

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how crucial journalism is to counter the rapid spread of inaccurate information and to hold governments accountable, a diverse panel of leading journalists noted on Thursday, a few days after World Press Freedom Day.

Sometimes that story-telling saves lives, but it can also come at a high personal cost to those telling the stories. In India, over 200 Indian journalists have died of COVID-19, and worldwide, others have been imprisoned and censored for criticising their government’s pandemic effort.

“It’s in crisis that we really come to appreciate the essential role that journalists and media play in keeping societies well-informed, providing us with accurate information, and the essential role it plays in holding governments accountable,” stressed Suerie Moon, the Co-Director of the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre, which hosted the panel with Health Policy Watch.

The event featured leading journalists from India’s Pune, Pakistan’s Islamabad, and South Africa’s Cape Town, who reflected on how the media shapes public discourse and the challenges they face – often in contexts that are under-resourced and even life-threatening. 

Keep Questioning Authorities

Our job is to ask and keep questioning authorities, and it’s our role to tell people what the government is not telling them, stressed Rahul Basharat Rajput, Health Policy Watch Pakistan correspondent, and Fellow at the International Center for Journalists.

“Indian journalists have tried their best to play the role of a watchdog and hold the government accountable, especially because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been responsible for several superspreader events,” added science journalist Disha Shetty, who also reports for Health Policy Watch – noting that journalists had warned long-ago that a complacent government could trigger a potentially devastating pandemic.

Shetty and Rajput spoke from their homes in India and Pakistan, which are among the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. 

“Reporting is coming at huge personal costs to journalists telling the stories,” Shetty said. “India is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist at the moment, according to Reporters Without Borders.”

Over 200 Indian journalists have already died from COVID-19, according to a list that is being compiled by the Network of Women in Media in the country.

Fighting The Spread of Inaccurate Information

In India, the media has played a key role in countering inaccurate information, whose spread has mainly been driven by governmental authorities, Shetty said.

“A lot of the source of misinformation is coming from the government machinery, [for example] during government press conferences, which have been used to downplay the extent of the pandemic and to promote herbal cures that lack scientific backing,” she said. 

“Media in India, the US and other countries have a crucial role in calling out misinformation that comes from government sources because you can’t just report on a press conference when this misinformation is being spewed out.”

Some reporters with massive social media followings have also contributed to the dissemination of inaccurate information, she added, calling on her colleagues to hold each other accountable to protect an increasingly vulnerable public.

Vaccine hesitancy, uncommon in India prior to COVID-19, has been fueled by inaccurate information, as well as the government’s lack of transparency around the indigenous Bharat Biotech vaccine. This has visibly affected vaccine uptake in India since the pandemic struck, Shetty warned. 

The African continent has not been immune to these issues either, even though its official COVID-19 burden has been low in comparison to the rest of the world, added Kerry Cullinan, the Africa Editor of Health Policy Watch.

In South Africa, only a fifth of eligible South Africans over the age of 60 have registered for a jab, she warned. Meanwhile, in Kenya, where around a quarter of citizens are Catholic, the Kenyan Catholic Doctors’ Association has dismissed COVID-19 vaccines as “unnecessary”, instead promoting unproven treatments from antiparasitic drug ivermectin to other herbal medicines.

African Journalism is “Massively Under-Resourced”

In Africa, the fight against increasingly inaccurate information and growing vaccine hesitancy has been exacerbated by the fact that journalism is now massively under-resourced, Cullinan added, referring to a wave of job losses in the sector since the pandemic emerged. 

At the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the country’s public broadcaster, 620 people were retrenched at the end of March while most magazines had closed, she said.

In some African countries, journalists accept money from governments to write about various initiatives, and this “obviously affects the quality of articles produced”, she said.

“If you can’t earn a living from this profession [journalism] you’re not going to be doing it very well,” noted Elaine Ruth Fletch, the editor-in-chief of Health Policy Watch, who moderated the discussion.

Still, recent funding from the Wellcome Trust has helped several Africa-based journalists stay afloat during the pandemic, panelists said on an encouraging note.

 Striking Success Story – How Two Pakistani Reporters Shifted National Policy

Pakistan health workers getting vaccinated with Sinopharm.

Meanwhile, a series of articles by Rajput and co-writer Mohammed Nadeem Chaudhry published by Health Policy Watch made a huge differenceto Pakistani society and national health policy, the writers reported. 

After one of our stories was published by Health Policy Watch, it made a huge difference, said Rajput, referring to a story he co-authored with Chaudry in mid-April amid an intense third wave in Pakistan. 

In that story, he shed light on the country’s quiet suspension of its vaccination campaign for healthcare workers – although 40% had not received a single vaccine jab. 

But after Rajput and Chaudhry sent queries about the campaign to Pakistan’s Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM), Faisal Sultan, the country’s vaccine campaign suddenly resumed.

The government’s move to halt the vaccination of healthcare workers was made transparent after our story was published in the media, said Rajput, adding. This is a very important story that shows how public stories influence the decisions that governments make.

He cited another hard-hitting story he co-authored with Chaudry for Health Policy Watch which exposed a $ 4.2 million misallocation of Global Fund donations for tuberculosis elimination, which was instead funneled to a private hospital in Karachi. Only about $1 million of those funds are “potentially” recoverable, found Rajput.

Local media outlets did not want to publish some of these stories and even the World Health Organization’s Pakistan office refused to comment on either story.

The story about the Global Fund, our first story in Health Policy Watch, local news networks refused to publish it, but we felt that it was a very important story to report to tell the people, so we looked elsewhere,he said. In Pakistan, you cannot report on a lot of things.

Pakistan is the fifth most dangerous country for journalists worldwide, said Rahul. Between May and April 2020, The Freedom Network reported 148 violations against journalists. This includes 60 murders.

Image Credits: Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.