April 2, 2020 9:32:10 am
In times of crisis, especially a health crisis without prophylactic or cure, clear messaging by those in charge based on credible information is imperative. So is creating a space where questions can be asked and addressed given the countless unknowns about the outbreak and its fallout. Science and facts are antidotes to fear and panic. The Supreme Court rightly directed the government to activate a mechanism for delivering official updates on the coronavirus crisis and measures to contain it every 24 hours. Indeed, officials of the Ministries of Home, Health and ICMR have been holding useful daily briefings on the pandemic. But this official explanation and version does not and cannot do justice to the unfolding story. It must be supplemented by the news — including and especially bad news. The government, and the court hearing its solicitor general, blamed the exodus of migrant workers from the cities into the countryside on fake news. Yes, fear — and a phone forward — is fertile ground for rumour but absence of credible communication and assurances from the government also contribute. A daily press conference, where questions are fielded and answered, however uncomfortable — even ignorant — is the most effective way of a government reaching citizens during a crisis. Especially when they need guidance on issues that affect their life and livelihood, details needed to make decisions and secure lives. These are not issues for a Prime Minister’s address to the nation — they need daily reinforcement.
The only official communications that the migrants received were delivered by the policeman’s heavyhandedness, and his lathi. On the other hand, it was extensive and sustained media reporting on the developing crisis which prompted governments at the Centre and in the states to step in to contain the exodus and deliver support to the migrants. Even now, the solicitor general’s statement presents the damage as mainly epidemiological, rather than human. If the press had relied on the official version, the magnitude of the crisis would not have come to light, for the government to address.
As WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said, humanity is fighting two foes — a pandemic and an “infodemic”. But the antidote is not to rely on an authorised version, which could gloss over unpleasant truths, but informed choice. The media is the enabler of that choice. It was put on the list of essential services during the lockdown so that it could bring credible news of the pandemic both to the people and the government. It has done its job and will continue to do so — that is an essential service protected by the Constitution.
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