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Setting a Rare Example Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik Walked the Talk in Financially Compensating Journalists Dying of COVID

Role played by media and journalists  in informing people about break out of disease and its spread has always been crucial and critical  for preventing its progression and protecting their lives. The visit of media people to places where disease and infection is rampant for gathering, reporting and transmitting information is fraught with life threatening consequences. A peep into our own history educates us about the instructive roles played by our own leaders to deal with highly infectious diseases. Mahatma Gandhi was one such leader who apart from being a brilliant communicator was a journalist with rich experience of letting people know about the out break of epidemics and measures needed to stem its spread and save their lives. While in South Africa he founded Indian Opinion in 1903 and when plague broke out in Johannesburg in 1905 he asked a question,  “what is the duty of the press on such occasions”?  and answered it by saying  that the duty of the press was to notify the incidence of plague as soon as it occurred for information of the public so that they remain prepared to meet the hazard. After that he suggested that the press would highlight people’s faults which caused the disease. It constituted a great example of the duty and responsibilities of a journalist in face of challenges posed by spread of infectious diseases. Gandhi himself put his life at stake by visiting plague affected people and reporting news and information about the extent of spread of that disease and measures needed to check it. Such insights are critical in the context of COVID-19 which is spreading at a rapid rate across the world. In an article “Winning the battle, but not the war” authored by Jennifer  Thorley and published in the Lancet in August 2020 it is stated that “Although COVID-19 certainly marks a unique event in world history, the journalist and public health researcher explains that five other infectious diseases have also been declared Public Health Emergencies of International Concern since the SARS epidemic of 2003—H1N1 influenza in 2009, polio in 2014, Zika virus in 2015, and two outbreaks of Ebola (one in West Africa in 2014 and one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018)—all with the potential to spread worldwide under the right set of circumstances.” People, society and humanity critically depend on journalists for the much needed information on the pandemic caused by novel coronavirus to increase awareness and understanding for effectively dealing with it and ensuring human, health and economic security. In the context of India it is well known that the World Health Organisation had declared COVID- 19 as a pandemic on 11th March 2020. By that time infections caused  by coronavirus had spread in many States of India. But the Government of India stated on 13th March 2020 that there was no health emergency for our country. However, when Prime Minister of India Shri Modi addressed the nation and announced Janta curfew on March 21, 2020 he  declared that journalists and media people are part of essential services and underlined the point that they would  remain active during the lockdown. It is worthwhile to note that with the onset of COVID crisis and its rapid spread across the world causing health, human and economic crises of gigantic proportions, Governments in almost all the countries announced health insurance and compensatory amount for doctors and COVID warriors who constituted part of essential services and remained in the forefront to fight and defeat the menace. However, Governments while treating journalists and media people as part of essential services hardly did any thing to declare financial package or compensation for their families or next of kin in the event of their unfortunate passing away because of COVID. A singular exception to it is the Odisha Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik who set an exemplary trend for India and indeed the whole world on 27th April 2020 by making a historic announcement that compassionate assistance of Rs 15 lakh would be paid to the family of working journalists who die due to coronavirus infection. 

Odisha CM set an example in announcing financial compensation and implementing it 

The extraordinary importance of that announcement can be better appreciated if we become mindful of the fact that In the month of April 2020 COVID had not at all spread at an alarming pace in the State. Even as total  COVID positive cases in Odisha were only 118 and number of deaths was less than seven by end of April Chief Minister Shri Patnaik understood the magnitude and severity of the problem and underscored the significant roles of field journalists of both the print and electoral media in disseminating information on COVID and making people empowered to save themselves from the highly  infectious novel coronavirus and protect their lives. That was why he thoughtfully stated that “Coronavirus  has created a huge health issue across the globe and journalists play a major role in creating awareness among the masses. They are working in a difficult situation to perform their professional duties and that if any journalist dies due to coronavirus, his/her family members will get ex-gratia of Rs 15 lakh.”

It is very inspiring and heartening to note that Shri Patnaik walked the talk on 31st July and sanctioned ex-gratia amount of ₹ 15 lakhs to each of the families of journalists late Priyadarshi Pattnaik and late K. Ch. Ratnam who succumbed to COVID which they got while serving in the field and covering and reporting news. While Shri Patnaik was working as a leading journalist for  prominent Odia daily,  The Samaja, in Ganjam district,   Shri Ratnam served in Eenadu, (News Today Pvt. Ltd.) in Gajapati district.

What Odisha CM did is being sought to be done through a PIL 

For a deeper and wider understanding of the idea of compensation announced by  Shri Patnaik for journalists losing life because of COVID  it is worthwhile to refer  to the public interest litigation (PIL) of Shri Jacob George of Bengaluru in the Karnataka High Court pleading for compensation to media personalities of that State and of India as a whole dying of novel coronavirus infection. The PIL was filed some time in May and on 15th May 2020 a Division  Bench  of the Honorable High Court observed in its order,  “…just like police, doctors, nurses, government personnel and others who are carrying out essential duties, in the same way, journalists and other media personnel are on the field so as to disseminate and convey correct information to citizens about the impact of the pandemic and other information from the world over,” 

The Bench also noted that “Mediapersons have to risk their health and life to be on ground zero, at hotspots and in containment zones so as to collect information to convey it to the public, either through the press or electronic media for responsible reporting, and also to ensure that the distress of the people and their despair are made known to the government and its instrumentalities so that suitable action is taken for the containment of the virus.” 

The Bench further made a pertinent observation and stated that “The media, in the present health crisis, should be responsible in reporting true and correct facts and not exaggerating or sensationalising to create fear or panic amongst people.” 

Therefore, the Bench in its order observed that “the role of journalists and media personnel can neither be underestimated nor undermined during COVID-19 pandemic” and  directed “the Central and State governments to consider as per the law, a representation made by a petitioner seeking payment of compensation in case a journalist or media personnel dies of the infection.”

It is of extraordinary significance that what Shri Patnaik did in April for the cause of journalists in Odisha was now sought to be done through a PIL for media persons in the State of Karnataka and rest of India. 

Mumbai Press Club Demanded Financial Compensation for journalists 

It is noteworthy  that the spirit of the decision of Shri Patnaik to give  compensation money to deceased journalists is embodied in the  demand of the press clubs in several parts of the country. For example the Mumbai Press Club did so and it was mentioned in an article,   “Who Will Write about Us if We Fall  Sick: The Vulnerability of Journalists in the Time of COVID 19” authored by Shweta Desai and published in Newslaundry. She wrote , “The Mumbai Press Club has also demanded the state government include the category of working journalists under essential service workers and provide them with a protection cover of Rs 50 lakh as health insurance.”

A journalist of the Hindu Shrimati Soma Basu in her piece tiled “Take care of yourself too, fellow journalists” and published in the same paper on 1st May 2020 wrote, “Journalists out there on the field run the risk of exposing themselves to the highly contagious virus, much like our other foot soldiers: sanitation workers, police personnel and all those in the healthcare sector, rendering selfless service to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”. 

Such appeal to journalists  for taking care and protecting their lives while reporting on pandemic should be matched by corresponding action on the part of the Government to guarantee financial package to their families in case journalists succumb to the COVID while doing their duties as a frontline worker. 

Bangladesh Journalists Demanded Financial Compensation 

If wee go beyond the frontiers of India we find that Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) along with its main affiliate Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ) issued a statement on May 9 following an emergency meeting and observed that Covid-19 so far killed three newsmen and demanded compensation of at least Taka 50 lakh for every deceased newsman and support the treatment of those infected by coronavirus. 

UNESCO stood in Solidarity with Journalists Covering COVID

The UNESCO deplores fatalities among journalists covering the COVID -19 pandemic and its Director General Shri Audrey Azoulay in a message stated, “Journalists are on the frontline and put their safety in peril every day to bring citizens reliable and verified information on the pandemic. Their contribution has been invaluable for us all. But many lack protective equipment and access to healthcare, and some have been made to pay the ultimate price for their coverage of the health crisis. I stand in solidarity with media workers and their families during this demanding and perilous time.”

It is indeed great and good of Chief Minister Shri Patnaik that he has stood in solidarity with media personalities and their families by announcing a financial package and implementing it for the two deceased journalists. The role played by his Private Secretary Shri  Karthikeyan Pandian in this regard deserves commendation. He has had the record of interacting with important media personalities of Odisha. Chief Minister Shri Patnaik deserves compliments for setting a shining example for standing by deceased journalists who while serving in the field got infected by COVID and breathed their last. This enduring legacy would be a source of inspiration for generations to come.

The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. He lectures in universities and writes on diverse issues including public policies. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity. Email snsahu58@gmail.com

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