While some states like Punjab, Odisha, Bihar, MP and TN have declared journalists as frontline workers, the Union government has been silent despite demands and representations.

A frontline worker during the coronavirus pandemic seen in a PPE kitImage for representation: PTI
Delve Coronavirus Tuesday, May 04, 2021 - 14:59

A few months ago, the Karnataka Information and Public Relations (I&PR) Department called journalists for a campaign on awareness for the COVID-19 vaccine and other related issues. One of the questions asked was when journalists would be given ‘frontline worker’ status for the vaccine, to which officials smiled and replied, “The Union government has not considered even teachers as frontline workers, let alone journalists.” 

Speaking to TNM, a reporter who was part of the event and wished to remain anonymous said, “The aim (of the campaign) was to erase vaccine fearfulness and create vaccine eagerness. We have vaccine eagerness, why are you not giving it to us?” 

Since the onset of the pandemic in India, journalists have been at the frontline of covering the spread of the coronavirus, many risking their own lives. Many journalists were forced to stay isolated with fear of contracting the virus and spreading it to others in their own families. Many contracted COVID-19 and lost their lives. Most reporters on the ground were barely given adequate protective equipment by media organisations to cover the pandemic.

Several estimates say that over 100 journalists have died since the onset of the pandemic. The Institute of Perception Studies has pegged the figure at 139 between April 1, 2020 and May 1, 2021. Uttar Pradesh tops the chart with 26 journalists succumbing to COVID-19, followed by Maharashtra (19), Telangana (17), Delhi (16), Odisha (13) and Andhra Pradesh (7). The second wave of the pandemic this year has particularly hit journalists as 90 out of the 139 deaths have been reported in 2021, out of which a staggering 81 deaths were reported in April alone, the data showed. 

Other estimates say that the figure is even higher. The Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI) has been compiling its own list, which suggests that at least 175 journalists across the country have lost their lives in the last one year.

Should journalists get priority for vaccines?

While several state governments like that of Odisha, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab have taken initiatives to declare journalists as frontline workers and prioritise vaccination for them, the Union government has been silent on the issue despite repeated representations and requests. 

Speaking to TNM, Abhinandan Sekhri, co-founder of Newslaundry said, “The reporters who are out on the ground reporting should definitely have been given the vaccine a long time ago. Even if not when we were vaccinating senior citizens, then very soon after that. It should have been part of the first phase.” 

He added, “[When they are safe], that’s the only way these stories get out. Otherwise, who’s going to report on them? We lost our wonderful Ashish Yechury. Though he was not reporting on the ground, one has seen what this disease can do.”

Last month, amid a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases, the Editors Guild of India had written to the Union government to consider journalists as frontline workers and provide vaccination against COVID-19 on a priority basis.

“News organisations have been relentlessly covering the pandemic, elections and other current affairs in an effort to ensure that the flow of news and information to readers continues unabated. News media is included in essential services. Therefore, it will only be fair that journalists be given this cover of protection, especially in the face of the number of infected rising to astronomical levels,” the statement had said. The NWMI had also expressed support for this demand, and the Editors Guild’s statement.

However, they say that they are yet to get a response. Seema Mustafa, President of the Editors Guild of India said that they had appealed to the Union government with the hope that such an announcement would make it a federal issue. 

“Unfortunately, it hasn’t come from them (the Centre) and has come from some states instead. We think that it is really important for the Union government to take note of this. By taking this step, you are acknowledging the work that journalists are doing by covering the pandemic, at great risk to themselves. It will also set an atmosphere where there is wider recognition of this fact and the need for all journalists to be vaccinated,” she told TNM.

“We still hope that the Union government will respond and will take immediate measures to ensure that journalists are protected on the job,” she added.

It is not just reporters, but also several people who are part of the desk teams in large media outlets or those working at printing presses who have contracted COVID-19 due to the nature of their job, which requires them to come to office. 

“Like ICUs being managed without enough doctors, how can you have a printing press working, where several people test positive (affecting day-to-day production)? When you say warriors, it is not only people on the ground. There are also people on the backend, who are making an effort to go to office every day to get a newspaper out for citizens,” a Bengaluru-based journalist said. 

In its own statement, the NWMI expressed sadness and anger at the plight of journalists in India. It said, "Journalists are on the frontlines of reporting the COVID-19 pandemic, in pursuit of promoting citizens’ right to information, and  yet they are often at the receiving end of hostility – from the public and political pressure groups alike. While the press received exemptions from lockdown restrictions, along with the police and others rendering essential services, press workers have not been considered frontline workers eligible for early vaccination,  except in a few places. It is high time the authorities paid attention to the complete lack of access to timely medical attention for journalists on duty and drew up a vaccination plan for them on par with healthcare workers and other recognised frontline workers."

It further states, "Journalists are the unacknowledged and unsung messengers who have been bringing to light the reprehensible disintegration of basic health care facilities in the midst of a pandemic, often reporting from the field, standing outside hospitals, morgues and cremation grounds alongside scores of desperate patients and relatives. As so many commentators have pointed out, scores of citizens have succumbed to the virus merely due to their inability to access in a timely manner, hospital beds,  vital oxygen support and/or the  drugs required to help them tackle the disease. While the responsibility for this entirely human-created disaster must be laid squarely at the doors of the government, both at the Centre and in states, who does one hold accountable for the deaths of journalists – the information-gatherers and record-keepers who bear witness to this tragic debacle?"

The statement also says that the problem goes beyond just vaccination. "News-gatherers, whether they work independently or as employees of media houses, have been silenced in more ways than one over the past year. Journalists today are often criminalised for doing their duty and, at such times of trouble, they are virtually abandoned by many of the media houses they work for. To make matters worse, the layoffs and pay cuts have no doubt put pressure on those who still have jobs to take even more risks to get stories."

Onus on states

With the Union government yet to respond on the issue, the onus has been on states to step up and prioritise vaccines for journalists. 

N Ram, Director, The Hindu Publishing Group said that there was no doubt that journalists, and especially reporters, were frontline workers. “It will be good if the Union government declares journalists as frontline workers, but it is for the states to implement this. The Union government could send an advisory to the state governments and pressure should be put on the latter to do it,” he said.

He also questioned what benefits the journalists could receive now, amid soaring cases and a shortage of vaccines.   

“Earlier, frontline workers could get vaccinated when vaccines were available, but now vaccines are in short supply. On paper now, anyone 18 and above can get a vaccine. So, it remains to be seen as to what benefits they (journalists) will get now,” he added. 

Even in some states that have declared journalists as frontline workers – like Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar – priority vaccination is only applicable for only to those who have received accreditation from respective state Information and Public Relations Departments, which makes up only a small number of journalists. This also excludes freelancers and stringers, who are often the ones covering the news on the ground and relaying it to the offices of media outlets.   

“The organisations and media outlets should compensate journalists who died covering the pandemic. But for freelance journalists who are left in the lurch, the state government should provide some compensation,” N Ram said. Last month, states like Odisha and Telangana declared ex-gratia of Rs 15 lakh and Rs 2 lakh respectively for journalists who succumbed to COVID-19 after contracting it on the job.

Seema Mustafa agreed, adding, “Most of the people who are covering COVID-19 are individual reporters or freelancers who are working for small organisations and they are really at risk. We have noted this. We are going to write to them (the government) that everyone with a journalist ID should be part of this vaccination drive.” 

“I think the Union government’s disregard towards journalists and journalism has been evident for a long time,” Abhinandan Sekhri observed. “They clearly don’t seem to think of journalists or journalism as a value in democracy. I think youngsters have immense courage, drive and commitment towards journalism and I have nothing but fond respect for them. But the government, in many cases, doesn't seem to agree.”

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