Latest in WhatsApp Journalism: Zee Hindustan’s show on Araria

A video yet to be authenticated becomes fodder for TV news debates.

ByCherry Agarwal
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Latest in WhatsApp Journalism: Zee Hindustan’s show on Araria
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A senior civil servant from Uttarakhand has registered a complaint against Zee Hindustan with the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA). He has accused Zee News’ sister organisation, which ran a show based on an unauthenticated video, of violating NBSA’s Code of Ethics and Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code that pertain to hurting religious sentiments

The complaint by Ashish Joshi, former nodal officer of Sachar Committee, is against a March 16 episode of ‘Batana To Padega’, a Zee Hindustan show, headlined: “जीता Musalman…अब Araria आतंकिस्तान?” This loosely translates to the TV channel wondering out loud if Araria had turned into a terror state since a Muslim candidate had won the bypoll elections.

The show was based on a 34-second video clip that went viral after Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Sarfaraz Alam won the Araria Lok Sabha seat in the recently-concluded bypolls. The video shows three youths with colour-smeared faces. While one of the three youths mouths an expletive without naming anyone, slogans like “Pakistan zindabad” and “Bharat tere tukde honge” can be heard in the background.

Following this, on the complaint of station in-charge Deepankar Shriram, Araria Police filed a first information report against three local youths for allegedly raising these slogans in a video that appears to have been shot near Alam’s house. Of these three, two were arrested for sharing the video, which could have “fomented communal trouble”, an Indian Express report stated.

While the police are yet to verify the video, Zee Hindustan aired their show at 7.30 in the evening of March 16. During the show, the anchor reiterated that the channel did not vouch for the authenticity of the video. That didn’t stop Zee Hindustan from hosting an entire news debate centred on it.

The video surfaced after Union Minister Giriraj Singh, reacting to BJP’s defeat in the bypolls, said, Araria constituency would become a “hub of terrorism”.

As matters stand now, fact-checking website AltNews has come forward with an audio analysis raising serious concerns about the video’s authenticity. According to AltNews’ analysis, apart from the prima facie issues with lip sync between the audio and video elements in the footage, the audio in the clip shows ‘nil’ levels at two points. This is including the time frame where the only person in the video who is moving his mouth can be seen.

In addition, the families of the three youths against whom the FIR is registered have come forward stating that the video is doctored. The families have now submitted the “original video” to the police. This video shows the three men shouting, “Katno kariyo baap baap, lalten chhaap [However hard opponents try, the RJD will win].”

While the police are awaiting the FSL report to determine whether the video was genuine or doctored, Zee Hindustan’s show based on this unverified video has been viewed at least 4,594 times on YouTube. A teaser of a Times Now broadcast on the same video has been viewed 21.7k times.

Times Now would have you believe that Bihar Director General of Police KS Dwivedi has confirmed that the tape isn’t doctored. But what Dwivedi actually said was that while the video doesn’t appear to be doctored, they are waiting for the forensic report.

Among others, this unverified video was also broadcast by Aaj Tak, India TV and ABP News. While a teaser of Aaj Tak’s show has been viewed 34.3k times on Twitter, ABP’s news package on the matter has had at least 99k views on YouTube while India TV’s show received 19k views. The numbers only speak of the reach of a news item that is yet to be verified.

Ironically, ABP’s Viral Sach (which loosely translates into viral truth) in its attempt to show the truth behind the video played it on a loop but still failed to point out issues such as the lip sync. A similar show was also hosted by Zee News. While the latter did not play the video, the anchor stated that Zee News doesn’t verify the video’s authenticity.

Speaking to Newslaundry about his complaint, Ashish Joshi said, “I was aghast to see the blatant communal caption of the programme that was in clear negation of what the Constitution of India stands for.” He adds, “There was a clear prima facie case of violation of IPC sections”. With the media playing a “very important role in the dissemination of news and information”, Joshi finds social media rumour-based news debates an “extremely dangerous trend”. Joshi added: “It is warping the minds of the people and is having an adverse impact on Indian society. There have been so many cases of aggression and assault on minorities.”

Joshi, who has formerly worked in the Ministry of Minority Affairs, adds that the show also seemed like the negation of his work as a civil servant. “As the former nodal officer of Sachar Committee & PM’s 15 Point Programme for Welfare of Minorities, I feel sad to see negation of all the efforts we made,” he told Newslaundry.

Despite being alerted about Zee’s coverage, the self-regulatory organisation has yet to take suo-moto action against Zee. “Their [NBSA] approach has been bureaucratic. An authority is expected to take prompt action and not dither. Its actions should act as a deterrent,” Joshi said. Joshi is referring to NBSA’s Annie Joseph’s reply to his complaint — a copy of which Newslaundry has read.

Pointing Joshi to the Code of Ethics & Guidelines on its website, Joseph wrote to Joshi asking him to send “details of the broadcast i.e. the date, time and title of the broadcast and what are the violations of the Code of Ethics & Specific guidelines etc” to Prasanna Raghav, AVP Strategy & Execution, of Zee Media Corporation. This is the first level of redressal, Joseph stated in her e-mail. If dissatisfied with Zee’s response in a week’s time, Joshi can escalate the matter to NBSA, the e-mail stated.

Speaking of the process, Joshi says, “It is sad to see law-enforcing agencies and institutions like NBSA & National Commission of Minorities (NCM) playing a passive role in taking action against violators.”

This, however, is not the first time that NBSA is facing criticism for its inaction. Earlier, despite finding Zee News guilty of “defamatory and derogatory coverage”, NBSA failed to ensure that Zee followed through and apologised.

Dilip Mandal, ex-managing editor of India Today (Hindi), told Newslaundry that such instances of coverage continue “because there is no regulatory mechanism to govern/regulate irresponsible channels”.

“Self-regulation is actually no regulation,” Mandal said.

Explaining the reason behind WhatsApp-circulated videos and messages becoming the source of news debates, Mandal said: “There is no system of gatekeeping, which is otherwise very essential for any media organisation.” He added that another reason for unverified videos making it to news shows is because of the pressure on channels to disseminate news rapidly. This, in turn, compromises the quality of filters and fact-checks.

Mandal added, “News channels are ungoverned, unregulated and have a huge power [over shaping mass opinions] because of a huge audience.” This unchecked power has repercussions too. Speaking of which Mandal says, “They can create any sort of havoc. During 89-91 many newspapers actually turned into communal vehicles that actually resulted in riots.”

Newslaundry also spoke to Vineet Kumar, media critic and author of Mandi Mein Media. Kumar says there are two reasons why news organisations depend on social media as the source of information. He says that while using social media allows news organisations to shirk responsibility and blame people, it is also an easy way to reduce operational costs.

“Converting WhatsApp news into hard news is zero-cost content,” Kumar said. He adds: “In getting news from WhatsApp, channels do not have to pay a single penny. It is a matter of cost-cutting.” Kumar added that the second reason for using social media content is that it is an easy way to shirk responsibility while doing away with the cost-intensive newsgathering cycle. “They don’t want to take direct responsibility and, therefore, replicate these sources as reliable sources even though these are gossip sources. It is so because if it is their staff that has done it and the story goes against the government, then they will get in trouble.”

Kumar added: “They [TV channels] are not interested in doing ground reporting because they don’t want to take the risk.” Kumar said by taking WhatsApp content, news channels are able to pivot themselves as broadcasting the “voice of people”.

“Journalism is a long, steady process — from news gathering to delivery. It takes time, needs checks and balances and filters. However, with content coming directly from WhatsApp to television screens, this process is getting demolished,” Kumar said.

Speaking of measures to counter such trends, Kumar agrees with Mandal about the ineffective role played by self-regulatory organisations. He says that “at the end of the day self-regulatory organisations will serve the media industry and not the people”.

So to counter such trends media literacy is the way forward. “Until unless you engage in the process to make a sensible audience, there is no other solution,” Kumar says.

NBSA’s Joseph was not available for a comment. Newslaundry also reached out to Raghav, Zee‘s point of contact according to NBSA’s e-mail to Joshi, for his comments on the show’s violation of NBSA’s Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards. His response has been reproduced below:

“All channels under ZMCL are responsible news channels and there is no violation of NBSA guidelines in the said news report as alleged. The said news report was telecast on the basis of video which was available on social media. Moreover, the police have also registered an FIR in the captioned matter and comments from officer concerned also taken. The said video has been sent to FSL by the Bihar Police. This is also to clarify that in case any defamatory story on distorted or wrong facts, if carried by Newslaundry, ZMCL shall be constrained to initiate appropriate legal action against Newslaundry.”

When asked about NBSA’s earlier order in the Gauhar Raza case, Raghav stated: “We have already filed application of review of order passed by NBSA and the same is pending for adjudication before NBSA.”

The importance of social media in dictating and indeed setting the news agenda cannot be ignored. Neither is it always a bad thing. What is worrying is journalists using content from social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook without doing their own due diligence. Surely, it is their job to do more than put out disclaimers on the authenticity of the news source.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect Zee’s comments.

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