The Editors Guild of India on Thursday said it was “deeply perturbed” by the government blaming the media for the mass exodus of migrant workers from cities amid the coronavirus crisis.
On Tuesday, the Centre had urged the Supreme Court to bar media outlets from printing, publishing or telecasting any information about Covid-19 without ascertaining facts with the government. Following this, the top court directed the media to “refer to and publish” the official version about the developments.
“The Guild would state in all humility that it holds the court in the highest respect, but finds this advice gratuitous and unnecessary,” the Editors Guild said in a statement. “Blaming the media at this juncture can only undermine the current work being done by it under trying circumstances. Such charges can also obstruct in the process of dissemination of news during an unprecedented crisis facing the country. No democracy anywhere in the world is fighting the pandemic by gagging its media.”
With businesses upended and establishments shut down due to the lockdown, a massive number of daily wage labourers, many of whom lived where they worked, were suddenly left without jobs and shelter in large cities. With no available means of transport, thousands of them – with elderly parents and children in tow – marched along interstate highways to their homes. Last week, thousands of them boarded buses arranged by the governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to get home.
The guild also called the first information report against the editor of news website The Wire “an overreaction and an act of intimidation”. The Uttar Pradesh Police on Wednesday registered the FIR against Siddharth Vardarajan for spreading fake news against Chief Minister Adityanath.
“Any such intimidation of the media or blaming the media for mass migration of workers will be counterproductive. Such actions will be tantamount to disabling the messenger,” the guild said. “The Guild believes for sure that the media must be responsible, free and fair. But such interference can only undermine those goals.”
The FIR was filed based on the complaint of Nitish Kumar Shrivastav, a resident of Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. In his complaint, Shrivastav said: “The Wire editor on his blog, with the aim to spread rumours and hostility among the public, publicised the following message: ‘On the day the Tablighi Jamaat event was held, Yogi Adityanath insisted that a large fair planned for Ayodhya on the occasion of Ram Navami from March 25 to April 2 would proceed as usual while Acharya Paramhans said that Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus.”
The complainant said this amounted to “an objectionable comment” against Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, “which has caused anger among people”. The FIR did not name the editor.
The complaint was probably referring to Varadarajan, who had posted an article published on the site on Twitter on Tuesday, March 31. In the tweet, he wrongly attributed the quote that “Lord Ram would protect devotees from the coronavirus” to Adityanath.
On Wednesday morning, Mrityunjay Kumar, the media advisor to Adityanath, asked Varadarajan to delete the tweet, saying the chief minister had not made any such statement. He warned that action would be taken against him and a defamation case would be filed.
By afternoon, Varadarajan posted a clarification saying the quote was from Acharya Paramhans, the head of the Ayodhya temple trust, not from Adityanath. A correction was made to The Wire’s article.
Late on Wednesday, The Wire tweeted a statement saying that the FIR was a “blatant attack on the freedom of the press” and was “aimed at stifling legitimate expression and factual information”.