Among the polysyllabic words that 2020 has made miserably familiar is comorbidity. It describes conditions such as heart disease and obesity — already-present infirmities that abet the coronavirus in its devastation of the human body. Societies and institutions have their comorbidities as well, and journalism, in particular, is riddled with them: shortages of money, the spread of misinformation, authoritarian attempts to control the media, the internet’s compulsions to be quicker, briefer, catchier. Into this ailing system the pandemic arrived, further hobbling journalists in their efforts to separate facts from lies.
In September, a case in point emerged in the village of Boolgarhi, in northern India — a ghastly crime that quickly turned into a portent of the foreseeable, Covid-19-warped future of journalism.
On the sweltering morning of September 14, a 19-year-old woman went out with her mother, Gayatri, and brother, Rajesh, to cut grass and feed their cattle. Their family belonged to the Valmiki caste, one of several deemed by orthodox Hindus to be so low and impure as to be “untouchable.” There were four Valmiki families in Boolgarhi, living warily alongside members of the “higher,” more influential caste communities of Thakurs and Brahmins. While the antiquated system of discrimination by caste is now outlawed in India, inequities of power and wealth among the castes remain. At a minimum, Valmikis daily encounter remnants of the old notion of untouchability. Shopkeepers flick drops of water onto their money before accepting it, as if to ritualistically cleanse the currency notes. At their most extreme, caste relations slide into brutality. A couple of decades ago, the 19-year-old woman’s grandfather had been attacked by a Thakur man armed with a sickle. Sexual violence was a perennial threat. Later, the woman’s father said to a reporter, “We always lived in fear of our girls getting dragged into the millet fields.”
After a while, on that September morning, Gayatri noticed that her daughter was missing; then she found her lying stripped and unconscious in the fields. (Indian law does not permit the young woman’s name to be published.) The family took her to a nearby police station and then to a hospital in Aligarh, two hours away. In the account she provided, she said she had been abducted by four upper-caste Thakur men, whom she named. They had dragged her through the fields by her dupatta — the long sash of cloth many Indian women drape over their shoulders — and then used it to strangle her. Her tongue had been wounded and her spine injured so badly she was unable to move. At least two of the men raped her, she said. Later in the month, she was shifted from the hospital in Aligarh to one in Delhi. On September 29, she died.
Over this two-week period, details of the crime emerged in dribs and drabs — perhaps why the story didn’t immediately explode in the national press. Journalists were preoccupied by the Covid-19 pandemic, the faltering economy, and military tensions on India’s border with China. Additionally, Boolgarhi falls in the district of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh, a state of 200 million people known for its lawlessness. Its chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu nationalist notorious for his naked threats of violence against Muslims, belongs to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an outfit built according to and sustained by the tenets of upper-caste Hindu patriarchy. In the first few days after the rape in Boolgarhi, while details were still emerging, it must have appeared to be but one among the many acts of violence that typically and tragically spill out of Uttar Pradesh.
After the woman died, Hathras authorities took her body back to Boolgarhi, burning it hurriedly in a field at 3 a.m. the next morning. The police, having rejected her family’s repeated requests to receive and cremate her themselves, locked them in their house, preventing them from seeing her body one last time. Once that was done, the narrative began to twist and slide in unexpected ways.
Even before the pandemic, India’s newspapers were under siege. In part, this was due to the decline in advertising revenue afflicting media everywhere. But it was also due to the kinds of control the government exerts over this sector. India’s newspapers are finding, for instance, that the government will pull its valuable advertising from their pages if they criticize its policies. Modi’s administration has limited foreign ownership of online news portals to a 26% stake — a move that, coincidentally or otherwise, affected a number of the digital newsrooms that have been better able to hold the government to account by staying independent of its advertising. Editors, publishers, and journalists live in constant fear of being charged under a colonial-era sedition law, harassment by tax authorities, and assault by the BJP and its supporters. Some outlets appear to have adjusted by turning into compliant vehicles for the state: India’s best-known news anchor spends his evenings shouting down his own guests in defense of the government and its priorities.
And then there’s social media. Around 400 million Indians use WhatsApp, 270 million are on Facebook, 120 million are on Instagram, and around 20 million are on Twitter — an ecosystem that heaves with misinformation. Some of this is ordinary rumor, half-digested, quarter-understood scraps of hearsay. But a lot of it consists of deliberately planted misinformation and distortions. Reporters from HuffPost India found that the BJP had set up a fake-news factory to peddle lies during elections: edited videos, Facebook posts, websites masquerading as news portals. (HuffPost India shut down in November, partly because of the government’s edict on foreign ownership of digital media.) The head of the BJP’s information technology cell routinely shares misleading or outright incorrect information. These falsehoods find their way into the mainstream media — and, in particular, into television news shows. Three years ago, one channel reported, in total seriousness, the fabrication that the 16th-century astrologer Nostradamus had predicted Modi’s rise to leadership.
The yawning deficit of reliable news and the surplus of propaganda and lies have, in conjunction, contorted how people think and behave. More often than not, the effects favor the BJP and its particular agendas. A study by a University of Pennsylvania political scientist, surveying 1,200 Indians during the 2019 general election, showed that more people tend to buy the untruths spread by the Hindu right. Nearly 44% believed that India had suffered no terrorist attacks since Modi came to power, for instance — a nugget of misinformation that supports the BJP’s claim to be keeping India strong, especially against the old enemy Pakistan.
Violence is born out of WhatsApp texts. Sometimes these involve vigilante plots to lynch Muslims or to attack presumed cow smugglers and beef eaters. (The protection of the cow, an animal sacred to some Hindus, is one of the BJP’s pet causes.) On other occasions, people have beaten unknown men to death on the empty suspicion that they were kidnappers. These acts were fueled by dishonest WhatsApp forwards, of alleged events that didn’t even happen in India: a child-safety video purporting to show a kidnapping in progress, an image of dead boys and girls in Syria mislabeled as victims of local child-rustlers. Brutalities like these aren’t tied to any of the BJP’s explicit goals. But they align with the party’s instinct to create and exploit fault lines, and to keep people in a state of mistrust, with the possibility of violence never far away.
In the social media age, India’s ruling politicians have realized that narratives are endlessly malleable. Versions of the truth can easily be masked or supplanted. If no one knows what to believe, anything can be claimed or contested. Preventing journalists from doing their job is one method of controlling the story; seeding the news with fictions is another. Cutting off access to information altogether, as the BJP has done through internet shutdowns during times of unrest, is a third. The arrival of the coronavirus has muddied the news stream further still. And it has offered yet another way for the government to curb journalists who are trying to do their jobs.
Within an already slowing economy, Covid-19 further eroded the resources of the Indian media. Many newspapers, websites, and television channels, both English and Indian language, announced layoffs. Entire publications shut down. Shrunken newsrooms vacated larger premises and moved into smaller ones. Journalists who kept their jobs had to work for slashed salaries.
Budgets to send reporters around the country dwindled, compounding the problems of working during the pandemic. By law, reporters were permitted out even during the most rigorous phases of lockdown. But public transport services had stopped entirely. Scroll, a scrappy digital-news startup with offices in Delhi and Mumbai, immediately found itself handicapped. “When [the lockdown] first started, we realized, ‘How could we even get around the city?’” Naresh Fernandes, Scroll’s editor, told me. Many of Scroll’s reporters are young. “Not one of them owns a car. I have a bicycle. And you weren’t able to hire taxis.”
For reporters in the field, the risk of infection was constant. In the early days of the pandemic in Mumbai, when protective gear was still in short supply, dozens of journalists tested positive for Covid-19. Decisions about personal safety had to be balanced against the demands of the job. Journalism moved into the realm of the remote, occurring over Zoom and WhatsApp calls or via conversations with local stringers. Which raised a new hazard: that reporters, sitting at their desks, would end up covering versions of stories that had already broken or talking only to the people who were most easily reachable, rather than finding fresh stories and relaying the voices of those who are ordinarily silenced. It’s challenging enough to ferret out the truth about an event when you’re personally present for it. Doing it at an antiseptic distance, over broadband, only renders it harder still.
As bus and train services between towns came to a near halt, transportation emerged as yet another challenge. Even those able to find a car, as Anuj Kumar, a journalist in the Delhi bureau of The Hindu, managed to do, still found themselves being turned back at some highway checkpoints. “You showed your press card, and they were supposed to let you through,” Kumar said. “But the beat constable sometimes didn’t recognize your paper’s name, or he perhaps didn’t understand the new rules fully. His officer had told him to be strict, so he was, and he sent you away.”
For the government, Covid-19 and the attendant net of regulations presented even more pretexts to restrict journalists. At least 55 reporters have been arrested or faced other forms of legal trouble, physical assault, or intimidation in connection with their coverage of the pandemic. Some were arrested for narrating the grim progress of the virus on charges of spreading “misinformation.” Others were arrested for violating lockdown, even though the rules allowed them to work unhindered. Supriya Sharma, a journalist with Scroll, wrote about the effects of the lockdown on Modi’s home constituency of Varanasi; she was subsequently charged by the Uttar Pradesh police with, among other things, negligence “likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.” At one point, the government even petitioned the supreme court for the right to censor any news related to Covid-19. (The court rejected the request.)
The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic equipped the state with extraordinary new means to steer the story — which became apparent soon after the rushed cremation in Hathras.
Like many other reporters, Anuj Kumar went to Boolgarhi on the day of the cremation. Ahead of the three-hour drive from his home in Delhi, he stocked his car with masks and hand sanitizer. This was astute; upon his arrival in the village, all manner of social distancing fell apart. “These were people in a state of shock. They were grieving,” Kumar said. “You have to come close to them to empathize … so that they will open up to you.”
After the cremation, streamed live on Twitter by one television journalist, the Uttar Pradesh police issued a stunning statement: They denied that the 19-year-old woman had been raped at all. Forensic samples had yielded no traces of sperm, a police official said — but this was unsurprising, because the samples had been tested 11 days after the incident, too late for such traces to be detected. The official also alleged, vaguely, that “some people” — journalists and activists, presumably — were broadcasting the accusations of rape only “to stir caste-based tension.” An elaborate act of misdirection was playing out, with the apparent intent of protecting the four Thakur men and appeasing the influential members of their caste.
A few days later, Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, ordered police to look into an internationally funded “conspiracy” to foment caste riots across the state “on the lines of race-related clashes in the United States,” a state official said. In the midst of these dizzying diversions, a reporter for the India Today television channel suspected that the government had tapped her phone and released a recording of her conversation with a member of the young woman’s family.
The day after the cremation, journalists were barred from entering Boolgarhi. The police, claiming that some members of the local force had tested positive for the coronavirus, were stopping the media’s cars and broadcast vans at barricades set up a mile outside the village. They were trying to turn Boolgarhi into a Covid containment zone, Kumar learned. To make sure no one crept in on foot, policemen patrolled the fields around the village, keeping watch. “Covid was an excuse,” Kumar said. “I heard they were even testing people randomly in the area, to see if they could find a reason for making this a containment zone. But not enough people tested positive.”
Meanwhile, rumors trickled out: Gayatri and her family had been pressured to recant their accusations; they were being offered large sums of money to let the crime slide. One video, surreptitiously shot on a mobile phone and sent speeding around social networks, showed a Hathras district official telling the family: “These media people … some left today and tomorrow more will leave. Only we will be here with you. Okay? It is up to you whether you want to change your statement or not.” The wisps of news were hard to verify when the village itself was out of bounds. Despite the restrictions on crowds and public assembly, though, gatherings of upper-caste supporters of the four suspects proceeded without interruption. One TV chyron, on a news channel that has been consistently critical of the BJP, read, “COVID EMERGENCY MEASURES BEING USED TO TRAMPLE BASIC RIGHTS?”
By controlling both the physical geography of Boolgarhi and the climate of information around the crime, local authorities had snatched away the tools of journalists. As a result, reporters found it difficult to investigate the facts on the ground or reach their sources. Even the platforms they ordinarily used to conduct journalism under lockdown became difficult to trust. Who could tell whether, during a WhatsApp video call with residents of Boolgarhi, there wasn’t an official just off-screen, coaching them on what to say?
In the end, the blockade of the village lasted just two days. But the vise was relaxed only a little. The police still refused to allow human-rights activists or opposition politicians to meet the family. And although the media was technically permitted to enter the village, one journalist traveling to Boolgarhi was arrested on charges of sedition and conspiring to “disturb the peace.” He remained in custody throughout October and well into November — nearly as long as the four men awaiting trial for rape and murder.
The year ahead will hold plenty more such challenges for journalists. In nearly every likely scenario, outbreaks of Covid-19 will ebb and flow for months to come. Cities will go in and out of lockdown. Budgets will grow tighter still. Journalists, having to ply their trade online, will risk being marginalized by the innuendo and fakery spreading there. They will not only be hard-pressed to contest misinformation but have to compete with it, be held hostage by it, and be forced to watch as it aids illiberal and authoritarian rulers around the world.
Covid-19 adds a new chapter to the playbook used by regimes hostile to a free press. Governments frequently point to abstract concerns over national security or threats to the public well-being to throttle access to information and rein in reporters. The pandemic now offers such governments concrete and urgent excuses for their opacity: the maintenance of public order, the prevention of alarm, the need to check infection. The quashing of protests in Kashmir or Turkey may be justified citing the dangers of the coronavirus. China and Russia can censor information about new outbreaks. As public services increasingly move online, more governments will find pretexts to intrude on digital privacy; take the example of Israel, which requires Palestinian visitors to download an app onto their phones, or that of the Philippines, where a senator mooted a traceable national ID to serve in future epidemics. In countries around the world, journalists will be told to stay home — as they already have been in Liberia, Britain, Tajikistan, and Iran. There will be no arguing with quarantine.
This matters not least because of the battle against Covid-19 itself. The coming months will bring economic instability, extended drug and vaccine trials, the complications of vaccine rollouts and tracking, and speedy awards of government contracts for various pandemic-related projects. The urgency of these affairs can easily hide abuses of power, and transparency and journalism will be more necessary than ever.
As in the case of the woman in Boolghari, Covid-19 has given the state the power to hide what it does not want to be seen — a cloak to throw over a dead body.