As of today, a total of 519 journalists have died of Covid-19 in India, according to the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), which is keeping a day-by-day tally of the constantly rising death toll within the Indian media. As several international organisations put the overall number of journalists killed by the pandemic worldwide at around 1,500 at the start of June, this means a third of the world’s media victims have been in India.
The size of India’s figure is due in part to the scale of the second wave that has been sweeping the country for more than two months. According to the Institute of Perception Studies, an average of three Indian journalists died every day in April. The average has risen to four a day since the start of May.
Nearly three quarters of the victims are believed to have died after catching the virus while out reporting. This proportion could be underestimated because of the lack of data about reporters covering the pandemic in rural or semi-rural areas, where they are especially exposed and have little protection. Nearly two-thirds of the journalists killed by Covid-19 since the end of May were working in rural or semi-rural areas.
Although the infection rate has slowed in several major cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai since the start of June, there has been no let-up in rural areas or for the journalists trying to work in those areas.
“On the basis of the figures compiled by RSF, it seems clear that journalists are paying a particularly high price in the dramatic humanitarian crisis that has been hitting India for more than two months,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“But the situation has become even more worrying for those on the front line, in rural areas, who are faced with a seemingly insurmountable dilemma. It is their duty as journalists to cover the Covid-19 wave in the countryside, which continues to be under-reported, but at the same time it is their duty as citizens to protect themselves and others from the virus by not going to areas with high infection rates.”
Some media outlets have had to take the lead in responding to the situation. “In the beginning of the first wave, all our reporters were in the field,” said Kavita Devi, co-founder of Khabar Lahariya (KL), a grassroots news organisation consisting solely of women reporters from rural areas. “But as the death toll rose and the oxygen shortage began, we realised we needed to safeguard our teams, so we adopted a special set of rules.”
The new rules included holding regular meetings with the 20 field reporters on safety measures and quarantining. “We were so scared they would contract the virus that we decided to stagger their reporting in shifts, so that everyone spends only one day of the week in the field, Devi said. “And when we go out, we wear double masks, gloves, and face shields.”
Despite all these measures, most of KL’s reporters have fallen ill at some point or other, including Devi herself. “It’s impossible to say where we caught the virus. But often in those places where one of us had been, two or three reporters working for other news organisations subsequently died of Covid.”
“It’s been a truly heart-breaking time for all of us,” RSF was told by Alok Pandey, a journalist who covers rural areas in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh for NDTV. “But I think it’s particularly challenging for field reporters, given that the transmissibility of the virus seems to have increased exponentially in the second wave.”
There’s an added worry for many reporters, Pandey said. “In many cases our parents and relatives stay with us and the threat to their health is always at the back of our minds. At the same time, it’s very important to report on the massive crisis playing out across the country. Finding the right balance between our jobs and our personal safety, and the safety of our loved ones, is a big challenge.”
Meanwhile, national and international media are barely covering the carnage that Covid-19 is wreaking in rural areas. “Even district reporters are not coming to the villages, let alone national reporters,” Devi said.
Usual problems magnified
Jigyasa Mishra, a journalism fellow with the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) who has travelled to remote villages in the northern states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand over the past year, told RSF that the biggest difficulty for her has been a lack of infrastructure, which the lockdown has exacerbated. “In most cases, the number of options as regards somewhere to stay are very limited and there is no public transport either,” Mishra said
She said she once had to travel 400 km on a small motor-cycle just to interview officials about a public health problem she had discovered in a village. And such conditions amplify all of the problems that journalists in India, especially women journalists, routinely encounter, “Sexual violence is always a risk on the road, especially on deserted streets with no lights,” she said.
All of the risks involved in reporting in the field can end up taking an especially heavy toll during a pandemic. Mishra said: “Because I have been travelling so much, when my husband fell ill with Covid, I was wondering, with a sense of guilt if it was because of me.”
But reporting in the field is all the more important in India because the central government tends to play down the pandemic’s impact in official figures. And, as RSF reported as early as last April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government often asks Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to remove hundreds of posts about the health crisis, including data reported by journalists.
India is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.