As the COVID-19 pandemic rages out of control in India, many are rightly focusing on the content of stories on the death toll and months of lockdown. The lack of journalistic integrity behind some of the stories deepens this grim situation. In April, reports emerged that, at the request of the Indian government, Twitter censored 52 tweets criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile, pro-government TV channels blamed the farmers’ protests for limited oxygen supplies for COVID-19 patients, though supplies were actually scarce due to poor public health infrastructure. This reporting is not only misleading and traumatic to those affected by the pandemic, but also poses a major threat to India’s vibrant democracy.
Even before the pandemic, media bias in India existed across the largest newspapers throughout the country, and political forces shape this bias. For example, funds from the government are critical to many newspapers’ operations and budgets, and the current Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government has previously refused to advertise with newspapers that do not support its initiatives. This pressure leads media to endorse government policies, creating unbalanced reporting where media bias can affect political behavior in favor of the incumbent. Many media outlets enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the government, in turn receiving attention, funding, and prominence. These trends damage India’s democracy and also put journalists critical of the government in danger, threatening their right to physical safety.