On December 16, Zee News Editor Sudhir Chaudhary’s primetime show, DNA, trained its gaze on the communal violence that had erupted in Dhulagarh in Howrah on December 12. The village is on the outskirts of Kolkata and it took almost a week for the regional and national media to wake up to the rioting.
In his trademark style — which usually involves generous potshots at Afzal-premi patrakaars and budhijeevi (read: liberal media and intellectuals) — Chaudhary berated journalists for trying to bury the story. His contention was that a section of the media was being selective in this case and not giving it the coverage it deserved because the mob that unleashed the violence comprised Muslims.
The reasons for the media ignoring the riots may have been a little more complicated than that and, to be sure, Chaudhary’s show was not free from Zee News’ usual slant, which thrives on a sense of majority victimhood. But the channel and its reporters must be credited for reporting from an area that the West Bengal government had made difficult for journalists to access. For their pains, they now face a First Information Report, FIR, under Section 153A for promoting enmity. It is a non-bailable offence.
The FIR was filed on December 19 on the complaint of one Chiranjeet Das, who has stated that the violence in which both Hindu and Muslim houses were destroyed had been given a communal colour by the channel. He has also stated that the programme’s coverage spread panic among villagers in Dhulagarh and its surrounding areas.
The FIR is hastily written and lacks detailing. For example, it isn’t clear how exactly Zee News’ reportage resulted in promoting enmity among the people of Dhulagarh. It names reporter Pooja Mehta and cameraperson Tanmay Mukherjee, along with “Editor and others”, but again there are no specifics on how their reporting amounted to disturbing communal harmony in the village. It is surprising, then, for the West Bengal police to have taken such swift action on the complaint.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Chaudhary said the FIR smacked of political vendetta. He said the complainant may be associated with the governing Trinamool Congress Party. He added that Zee News would consider all legal options. “Right now, I am just worried about our reporter, who is a very young girl. She can be arrested any time,” he said.
Newslaundry spoke to Parthasarathy Haldar, officer-in-charge at Sankrail Police Station, where the FIR was filed, to ask him if that was indeed the case. He stated that the complainant was someone from the “general public” and that they were investigating the case.
Mehta’s report, at any rate, is tame by Zee News’s standards. (Indeed it pales in comparison to shows like Tal Thok Ke Extra Strong that stated quite simply that West Bengal was becoming like “Pakistan for Hindus”.) Sure, it can be critiqued for being one-sided, but since when has that become grounds for legal action? In the absence of any real bases for the West Bengal Police’s FIR, Chaudhary’s concern that the state government is going after Zee News is very real and deserves attention, irrespective of how problematic the channel’s reportage has been in the past.
Defamation suits, bans, censorships and FIRs have long been tools for politicians (and others in positions of power) to control and intimidate journalists. It deserves condemnation from the media fraternity, even if the channel is Zee News and even if its owners have advocated lifetime bans on rival channels in the past.