It seems the two Malayalam TV news channels, briefly taken off air for ‘biased’ reporting, were selectively targeted.
On March 6, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered a 48-hour blackout of Asianet News and Media One for “biased” reporting on the Delhi riots. Following an outcry, however, the order was rolled back within hours.
The ministry had issued an advisory on February 25 instructing private TV news channels to strictly adhere to the Programme and Advertising Codes as prescribed in the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, 1995 — and both Media One and Asianet were punished for violating these rules.
And a few weeks earlier, I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar had said in the Lok Sabha, “Appropriate action is taken against TV channels in case violation of the Programme and Advertising Codes is established.”
Considering that no other TV channel was punished, is it safe to assume their coverage of the Delhi violence didn’t violate these rules?
The ministry’s main charge against Asianet News and Media One was that their programming “could enhance the communal disharmony across the country when the situation is highly volatile”.
Revoking the ban, Javadekar insisted that the Narendra Modi government was committed to free speech, an admission perhaps that the restriction had more to do with curtailing press freedom than clamping down on coverage that spread misinformation or hate speech, particularly during a sensitive time.
Since scores of media outlets covered the violence but Asianet News and Media One alone were punished, the question is: were they soft targets? If maintaining communal harmony was the main objective of the government, was it really keeping an eye on misreporting by other news channels during the riots?
An examination of the coverage by some broadcasters provides the answer.
Look at the following report by Sudarshan News on its February 26 show, Jawab Toh Chahiye. Titled “Jihadiyon ka jhund”, or a mob of jihadis, it sweepingly blamed the violence in Delhi on “Islamist fundamentalists”.
The anchor, Lavani Vinit, began the show with three questions. “How did the jihadi mob come to Delhi? How did the jihadi mob hold Delhi hostage in this way? How did the jihadi mob throw Delhi into the pit of fire?”
Vinit claimed that “Islamic fundamentalists” had tarnished the image of Delhi.
“India’s capital, Delhi. Delhi is of the big-hearted. Delhi is mine and yours. This is the same Delhi which is famous in not only the country but all over the world for its lively and joyous character. Look at how that same Delhi is looking so heartless and morose today. And all this is the result of the radical Islamist though which has been mentioned by Donald Trump too.”
A few minutes later, Vinit said: “The Supreme Court has appointed two interlocutors to negotiate with the protesters at Shaheen Bagh. But what do they know! These people with jihadi intentions are only interested in kicks, not in talks.”
The report also “traced” the origins of the carnage to the Shaheen Bagh protest against the citizenship law.
“Delhi is celebrated as the city of the big-hearted. The heart of that very Delhi has been broken. And the genesis of this began at Shaheen Bagh, then these ‘peace ambassadors’ spread the fire to Jaffrabad, Chand Bagh, and Bhajanpura. They pelted stones at Hindu houses, women were abused. Now where are those people who talked of standing by the protesters?”
The demonstration at Shaheen Bagh has continued for three months. Mostly led by Muslim women, it has become the face of the citizenship law protests across India. This wasn’t the first time TV channels had maliciously projected it as a paid protest.
Nevertheless, the report by Sudarshan News got a free pass from the I&B ministry.
Earlier, another report by the channel linked Tahir Hussain to the violence. The now suspended Aam Aadmi Party corporator has been accused of “orchestrating” mob violence in the Chand Bagh-Khajuri Khas area.
The reporter took it a step further, suggesting a woman had been “killed” in Hussain’s building.
The report, broadcast on February 27, claimed that burnt clothes lay on the floor of Hussain’s building and that was the evidence of the murder. A man, whom the channel said was a “witness”, said a woman had been killed and thrown into the same drain where the body of Ankit Sharma was found. The reporter concluded that Hussain had been harbouring “jihadis” in his building.
The video has since been retweeted over 9,500 times. It was shared by BJP leaders such as Kapil Mishra and Amit Malviya.
Alt News pointed out that the Sudarshan News report was fake. It quoted Alok Kumar, joint commissioner of police, as saying: “No female dead body has been recovered from the Chand Bagh drain where IB staffer Ankit Sharma was found in our ongoing investigations.”
Sudarshan News was not alone in peddling misinformation. Times Now, one of India’s top English news channels, did the same a few days later. On March 5, even as efforts were on to restore peace in the capital, the channel broadcast a “new video” purportedly showing a man firing at police personnel at Maujpur during the violence.
The video was tweeted out with the hashtag #ShaheenLynchModel, drawing a link, as many other news channels had, between the Shaheen Bagh protesters and the riots. The next day, Amit Malviya, chief of the BJP’s social media army, used this video to make a veiled accusation that the shooter was a Muslim.
The BJP’s Major Surendra Poonia followed Malviya and wrote, “This is not against CAA but a terrorist conspiracy to break the nation.”
Again, Alt News decoded this “report” and found it was misleading. Analysing a longer version of the same clip, shot on February 25, and talking to multiple residents and reporters who were present at the time, it found the gunman was part of a pro-CAA mob. Also, after opening fire, he ran towards a group of policemen deployed in the area. So, Times Now’s claim of the gunman firing at policeman was false.
In his response to a question in the Lok Sabha on fake news, Javadekar had mentioned that the prohibition also covered any broadcast containing “suggestive innuendos and half-truths”. Now, will this rule be applied to Sudarshan News and Times Now?
On his show on February 25, the channel’s managing editor, Amish Devgan, joined Sudarshan News and Times Now in blaming the riots on the Shaheen Bagh protest, which he described as being “religiously motivated”.
“For three months, some people have been doing politics in the name of religion. Movements like Shaheen Bagh were erected on the pedestal of religion. Did that lead to what we are seeing in Delhi today, or what we saw in Aligarh yesterday? Let me move ahead. Many rioters have been arrested, but when will there be any action against their ideologues?”
Devgan brought up Shahrukh Pathan, who had brandished a pistol at the police during the riots in Maujpur.
“Those are responsible, even more than Shahrukh, who kept inciting Shahrukh for three months, who said ‘your citizenship, Shahrukh, will be snatched away’, who said this country will no longer accommodate people from a particular community. All those people are responsible. That entire brigade is responsible who keeps tweeting on Twitter.”
Shaheen Bagh has been an easy target for news channels peddling hate and misinformation. Yet, the protest continued peacefully even as violence raged in North East Delhi. Meanwhile, it was a BJP leader, Kapil Mishra, who made an inflammatory speech on the evening of February 23, hours before the first round of stone-pelting began in North East Delhi.
Next day, when Newslaundry reported from the area, many supporters of the citizenship law dubbed the violence “an awakening of the Hindus”. They also repeatedly claimed that the Delhi police were on their side. And videos did show policemen hurling stones alongside Hindu mobs.
Sudarshan News, Times Now and News18 India command substantial viewership. Their coverage of the Delhi riots, misleading and targeting a particular community, could have inflamed an already volatile situation. The I&B ministry didn’t think this merited censure, however, unlike in the case of Asianet News and Media One.
The order against Asianet accused that the channel’s “telecast of reports on North-East Delhi violence had been shown in a manner which highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community.” The same charge was levelled against Media One too.
In addition, Media One was also penalized for being “critical towards Delhi Police and RSS [Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh]”, the ideological parent of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. The order also alleged that the channel was “deliberately focusing on the vandalism of CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act] supporters.”
But in addition to these two channels, several other news organisations reported on the violence committed by CAA supporters as well as protesters. The role of the Delhi police in handling the riots was similarly questioned by many. Dozens of videos and pictures captured during the riots attest to the factual accuracy of these reports. But much before police investigations could come up with conclusions, the attempts by the channels to singularly taint a particular community is dishonest and unacceptable.
To get a sense of how the narrative peddled by these channels and their fellow travellers aligns with that of the governing party, consider the speech made by BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi during the debate on Delhi riots in the Lok Sabha on March 12.
Lekhi spent half an hour to corner the Muslim community by referencing selective incidents from the riots. She spoke at length about the killing of Intelligence Bureau staffer Ankit Sharma but didn’t even mention Faizan, who died days after being brutalised by uniformed men. She reminded us that a Hindu-owned school was vandalised, but didn’t acknowledge that so were more than a dozen mosques.
The investigation into the violence is still underway, but that didn’t stop Lekhi from declaring that it was orchestrated by “Islamist forces”. That there are videos of mobs waving saffron flags and chanting Hindu religious slogans unleashing mayhem didn’t seem to matter to her. She even tried to whitewash the incendiary speeches made by her party colleagues Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur that were denounced even by Home Minister Amit Shah.
Given that an elected representative is free to peddle misinformation and seek to whitewash violence in Parliament, can we expect her party’s government to act against TV channels that do much the same?