On Tuesday, it emerged that the Indian government had asked the Supreme Court to legalise censorship. Claiming that there is a high chance of panicked reactions based on “any deliberate or unintended fake or inaccurate reporting”, it urged the court to issue orders that would not allow any news to be published or broadcast without media organisations first “ascertaining the true factual position” – meaning whatever the government says.
The Supreme Court ultimately chose not to institute a system of censorship, but accepted the government’s dubious claim that the mass exodus of migrant workers over the last week was due to fake news. “We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments,” the court said in its verdict.
The problem with these contentions is that they miss the actual reason for panic in the country over the last two weeks.
First there was a wave of panic buying in India’s markets even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a self-imposed janata curfew, simply because of his reputation for political unpredictability.
There was even more panic buying after Modi’s second speech, because he did not clearly explain to people how they could get food and medicines during the three-week shutdown, prompting the prime minister to tweet in all caps, “THERE IS NO NEED TO PANIC.”
Finally, the migrant labour exodus began as soon as it became clear that lockdowns were being considered and that work and wages would dry up. In Delhi, as the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to wriggle out of responsibility for the masses of workers heading out of the city, it floated the theory that the flight had been caused by the actions of the Aam Aadmi Party government. It did not identify the media as the villain.
It is clear thaat the panic and rumours have come about not because of the media but because of the lack of information from the government. The court’s directions to the media that it must take the “official version” are a problem because, in many cases, the government has simply not been forthcoming.
The government has made it difficult to access most information – whether it is data on the number of people who have been confirmed with Covid-19, how much testing India is doing, whether the government has sufficient stockpiles of safety equipment, what the spread of the disease looks like, why there were major delays in sourcing of gear for healthcare workers, the technical specifications for testing kits approved for use in India, and much more.
In many cases, it was only after repeated questioning that the government issued the information at all. In fact, there has been so much stone-walling that a collective of health reporters across various news organisations decided to publish this list of 10 questions that the government needs to answer.
This lack of transparency is short-sighted. By refusing to give information, or not creating the systems for easy dissemination, the government may believe it can better control the narrative. But diseases cannot be beaten by winning the narrative.
Here are three reasons why the government should be much more transparent.
1. Reduces rumours and fake news
In this age of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, a limited amount of information from the government will only lead to more speculation about the situation. The best way to combat this is by providing precise, detailed information and to disseminate it widely.
There is undoubtedly fake news going around but the best way to defeat it would be for the government to answer all the questions that journalists pose and ensure that any citizen can easily access information. Hiding data, delaying numbers and refusing to answer questions does not inspire any confidence. It will only inspire more rumours.
2. It is essential in the Covid-19 fight
For India to effectively battle the pandemic, officials from the local level up to the Central as well as many in the private sector must be focused on taking on Covid-19 right now. Yet the government has not even been transparent about which testing kits for the coronavirus have been approved for use by private companies and state governments.
This may just have been an oversight. But it is only when the media is free to ask questions that the government’s attention will be drawn to such crucial gaps in information that could have a direct bearing on how successful India is in its fight against Covid-19.
This is not just about looking bad under media questioning. This is about having all the information to address the Coronavirus crisis.
3. It will bring more people into the battle
No one criticises the government for not already having a vaccine to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Why? Because people understand that this is a new phenomenon that has precipitated a global crisis and will take all the best efforts of governments and individuals all over the world to combat.
Indeed, we need to look far beyond the capabilities of just the Indian state. The Principal Scientific Adviser to the government of India has called on the country’slarge pool of scientists and companies working in the field of science to help take on this challenge. The NITI Aayog has called for doctors to volunteer to tackle the outbreak. Many in India’s Information Technology sector organsed a hackathon to develop apps that can assist in the battle.
Indeed, much of the world’s responses to Covid-19 have been aided by involvement of private individuals, whether researchers or coders or medical professionals.
But for government to enlist the public in this battle – whether it is a medical scholar in a small town that needs to know which testing kits are approved or an I-T professional who needs more data about testing to design better analytics or a high-net-worth individual who wants to source and distribute protective equipment but doesn’t know whether India is lacking them and which part of the country has insufficient stockpiles – it will only be possible if authorities are forthcoming with information.