Aug 25, 2020
Last week, COVID-19 claimed an unlikely victim: The Shillong Times, North East India’s oldest broadsheet newspaper, was ordered by the Government of Meghalaya, under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the Meghalaya Epidemic Diseases, Regulations 2020, to close its office premises.
The government order came after four persons working in The Shillong Times office premises performing non-journalistic functions reportedly tested positive. The order has required the closure of all shopping establishments, government and private institutions located within the boundary of the containment area, and banned movement by all inhabitants.
Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, said: “The management had allowed desk staff to work from home. Some were also provided desktop computers to enable them to work from home. As editor I also worked from home since March 20, this year. It is difficult to understand the harsh and knee-jerk reaction to contain the office for three days, on account of which the newspaper could not come out.” She added that her newspaper “had followed all necessary protocols of placing hand sanitizers and a wash basin with soap and water at the office entrance.”
“The printing room where machine persons work from 3 am-6 am is completely isolated from the newsroom and computer room. The three machine men and the driver who tested positive are under institutional quarantine and looked after by the management. Other staff were tested since Saturday but the results were not out until Monday morning. On Sunday evening, the Municipality came and sanitised the entire building including the workspace. But no order was passed for reopening the office after following due precautions,” she said.
The paper closed its offices after publishing for 75 years. The East Khasi Kills District Administration said protocols on social distancing, wearing of face masks and hand sanitization were in violation of rules to control the pandemic.
Concerned at the temporary closure of the newspaper, especially at a time when the media needs to function as an essential service for news and information, the South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN) today urged the Meghalaya state governments to ensure that decisions that impact on freedom of expression and media independence are not taken or influenced by factors extraneous to the pandemic.
“The newspaper performs an important function in any society, particularly in times of a pandemic, and a major newsroom of the region must be allowed to serve its essential purpose, even if this may mean operating with limited staff and regulated entry and exit movement on site,” it said.
SAMDEN, a group of more than 60 media professionals across South Asia, also recalled the legal pressures, physical and verbal attacks and threats against Patricia Mukhim, the paper’s editor, for her free and frank expression of views. Ms. Mukhim is a member of SAMDEN.
“The absence of information is more harmful to society during a pandemic than misinformation or disinformation,” SAMDEN said, urging the newspaper to move to a fully online space.
Founded in 2017 and anchored in the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), SAMDEN has seven co-conveners including Hazarika and a membership of over 60 media professionals across South Asia. The other conveners are Kanak Mani Dixit, founding editor, Himal South Asian; Mahfuz Anam, editor, The Daily Star, Dhaka; Salil Tripathi, Chair, PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee; Beena Sarwar, Boston-based journalist, film maker and media teacher; Kalpana Sharma, senior journalist and author; and Kumar Lopez, Executive Director, the Sri Lanka Press Institute.