Given the decomposing corpses, Bihar officials suspected they came from further upstream – possibly from Uttar Pradesh, the heavily populated state where Gaur is based. He therefore sent a team of 30 journalists to more than 27 districts to investigate.
After hours of searching, the team found more than 2,000 bodies floating or buried along an 1,100-kilometer (684-mile) stretch of the Ganges, considered a holy river for most Hindus. Dainik Bhaskar, one of the largest Indian newspapers in Hindi, published his article last week with the headline “Ganga a shame”.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 35-year career,” Gaur told CNN Business.
While the human toll from the disease has been immense, journalists like Gaur are not only covering the tragedy of the situation. They are also fighting for transparency and accountability from a government that has tried to quell criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his handling of the pandemic.
As the crisis unfolded, Modi was initially criticized by the international press for not doing enough to prevent the disaster and for downplaying the death toll. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who is a close ally of Modi, has been accused of intimidating citizens and journalists reporting on oxygen shortages in the state. New Delhi even asked Twitter to delete tweets about Covid-19, including some that criticized Modi.
“People have told me not to fight with the administration,” said Gaur, who not only wrote about the administration’s data fraud allegations, but also criticized the authorities for being callous with the administration. which the bodies discovered were ultimately cremated. The state has now started to patrol the river, to prevent the dumping of bodies.
“State officials have tried to stop our coverage several times in recent days, and have even threatened us with legal action,” he added.
Since that first article, his journal has continued to count bodies in the Ganges and hold politicians accountable for the crisis – not just in Uttar Pradesh, but in other parts of India as well.
The spiraling crisis has overwhelmed India’s healthcare system in several states. Beds, oxygen and medical staff are scarce. Some patients die in waiting rooms or outside crowded clinics. At cremation sites, bodies pile up faster than workers can build new pyres. While the situation is currently improving in major cities, rural parts of the country may continue to struggle.
Critics of the government – from opposition politicians and judges to ordinary citizens and even a prestigious medical journal – claim that despite the scale of the tragedy, the country’s leaders have focused more on image management than on disaster relief. The government, meanwhile, has said it wants to prevent individuals from spreading false or misleading information.
To get the real story, many media have more and more shoe-leather journalism.
This report surprised many readers: India’s vast media has become increasingly subordinate to that of Modi government since the Hindu nationalist was elected prime minister seven years ago. The ruling party has used a range of tactics, from forcing advertisers to cut outlets that criticize its policies to close the channels, to ensure that the press is reshaped into its cheerleader.
“The mainstream media, especially the broadcast media, are really ignoring the failures of the Modi government, even if they appear neutral,” said Abhinandan Sekhri, CEO of Newslaundry, an award-winning independent news site that focuses on media and journalism.
But newspapers like Dainik Bhaskar “did not fare well and really went after the government “with their coverage of the pandemic, even though some leading television channels remain as” sycophant as ever, “he added.
In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, three of the main local language newspapers – Sandesh, Divya Bhaskar and Gujarat Samachar – have consistently questioned the official second wave statistics through their coverage.
Divya Bhaskar reported in mid-May that nearly 124,000 death certificates had been issued in the previous 71 days in Gujarat, about 66,000 more than in the same period last year. The state government reported that only 4,218 were linked to Covid. Most of the recent deaths have been attributed to underlying conditions or comorbidities, Divya Bhaskar said, citing doctors and families of the victims.
The newspaper said its reporters unearthed the data by visiting districts and municipal corporations.
Likewise, Sandesh, a Gujarati newspaper dating back almost a century, sent reporters to morgues, hospitals and crematoriums count the dead for the newspaper to publish daily figures. And, on May 9, the The Gujarat Samachar newspaper criticized the Modi government’s decision to go ahead with a planned $ 2.8 billion renovation of parliament, with the headline: “Even though people are fighting life situations or dead, the official becomes dictator. “
Have Indian media owners really gotten more daring?
This type of accountability reporting has not been the norm in many mainstream Indian media in recent years. But it’s hard to sell the government’s narrative to readers as Covid-19 cases continue to rise uncontrollably across the country.
” The the pandemic concerns 99% of the population. They [media owners] are savvy businessmen too and they know that following the government’s line at this point makes no sense, ”said Mahesh Langa, a Gujarat-based journalist working in English for The Hindu newspaper, who also wrote on large-scale underreporting. deaths in the state.
But pushing back Modi can also be a bad deal for newspapers, as government ads are a major source of revenue, especially as the economic downturn linked to the pandemic has hit other advertisers hard. And while firewalls exist to isolate commercial interests from editorial operations, these barriers can sometimes be under pressure in times of unrest.
Leading Indian media groups also have interests in other industries, according to a Reporters Without Borders report, which states that most of the big companies are owned by “large conglomerates which are still controlled by the founding families and which invest in a wide variety of industries. other than the media. For example, the family that owns the Dainik Bhaskar group also has activities in sectors ranging from real estate to energy. Reliance Industries, the conglomerate run by Asia’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, owns Network 18, which includes the CNN-News18 television channel, a subsidiary of CNN.
The promoters of many TV stations and newspapers must stay on the right books of the ruling party, Sekhri of Newslaundry said. They are “walking on eggshells” when it comes to government because they need favorable regulatory policies for their various businesses, which can range from telecommunications to oil, he said.
However, it becomes increasingly difficult for many media platforms to be subservient when public anger rises against Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, Sekhri added.
“They realize that their journalists will be beaten if they take to the streets” and do not report the truth, he said.
But telling the truth can get journalists in trouble. “India is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists who try to do their job properly,” according to Reporters Without Borders, which ranks the country 142nd out of 180 regions in its Global Freedom Index. the press.
“Over the past decade, 154 journalists in India have been arrested, detained, questioned or served notice of cause for their professional work,” according to an analysis by the Free Speech Collective. “Sixty-seven of them were registered in 2020 alone.”
There is also the mental toll that such reports take. “If you are not mentally strong, you will not be able to endure the scenes unfolding on the ground,” said Dhaval Bharwad, deputy chief photographer of Divya Bhaskar, who also belongs to the Dainik Bhaskar group.
Despite the challenges, many Indian journalists seem willing to keep trying to find out the truth. In the capital Delhi, Outlook India magazine caused a stir on Twitter last week, when it used the cover of its new issue to criticize the government’s inaction, presenting it in the form of a people poster. missing.
“It’s not an act of bravery on our part,” Ruben Banerjee, editor-in-chief of Outlook, told CNN Business. “We’re just reporting objectively. There is a feeling of abandonment in the country. “
– Jyoti Jha contributed to this report.