India, like much of the world, is battling against the coronavirus pandemic. The country has reported just shy of thus far, with 149 deaths. To contain the spread of the virus, the country is currently in lockdown.
The Indian media, however, has used even this grave crisis to whip up communal hatred. After it was found that a function organised by the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim religious movement, in Delhi’s Nizamuddin had caused a spike in coronavirus infections, Hindi and English media started to peddle . The Kannada media has been no different.
Vijay Karnataka has pinned the blame for the coronavirus outbreak in Karnataka solely on the Muslims. The daily published a frontpage on March 28 titled, “All the dead from corona are from the same community”. At the time, the state had reported 76 positive cases, with three deaths. Although the dead were indeed all Muslim, the daily used this fact to give the impression that the Muslims were primarily responsible for 76 people contracting the virus in Karnataka.
The report went on to falsely claim that the Muslims continued to flock mosques despite the lockdown, making the rest of the society fearful: “Hindus and Christians supported the government, and stopped visiting temples and churches in the last 10 days. Only a certain section of people still gathers on the pretext of praying. They are not following the curfew rules and are roaming the streets, which has got civil society worried.”
To back up its accusations, the newspaper selectively cited a couple of incidents involving Muslims. In the first incident, a Bangalore man named Mujib Mohammed was arrested for posting a tweet saying people should spit in a crowd to spread the virus. In the second, three persons praying in a mosque were arrested by the police.
The report drew wide condemnation. Fahad Khalid, a paramedic and emergency first aid and rescue volunteer in Bangalore, said it was shameful to make the coronavirus outbreak a religious issue “when it’s the time to bury communal differences and fight the pandemic together”.
And Vijay Karnataka wasn’t alone in peddling hatred, he pointed out. “Most Kannada news channels insinuated that the Nizamuddin congregation was organised by Islamic fundamentalists with the sole objective of spreading coronavirus throughout the country,” Fahad noted. “The conspiracy theory is enough to fuel communal riots in the country.”
Indeed, the coverage of the pandemic by several Kannada media outlets has been tainted with communalism.
BTV described the spread of the infection through the Tablighi Jamaat function as “virus terrorism”. On one BTV show, anchor Kirik Keerthi asked Muslims why they always brought “religion and god in each and everything”? He falsely claimed that 1,500 Tablighis had arrived in Karnataka and testing each of them would cost Rs 4,500 of taxpayer money. The Indian government has allowed private labs to charge up to .
“If you don’t like our country, go out and die,” the anchor declared, addressing the Tablighis, “Nobody cares and people like you should be kept in jail for life.”
Suvarna News, a Kannada TV channel owned by BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, called Muslim youth “shaitan”, meaning the devil, who are “more dangerous than coronavirus”. On another show, Suvarna News claimed that the police were trying to find out if the Tablighi Jamaat’s funding came from foreign sources, insinuating criminality.
In a bulletin, the channel claimed, without evidence, that a group of Muslims quarantined in Bidar were being arrogant and demanding “luxurious stay”, and that the doctors and the administration were exhausted by such demands.
Dighvijay News reported, without evidence, that the Muslims had beaten up ASHA health workers out screening for coronavirus. The anchor, Rakshath Shetty, claimed that the legislator Zameer Ahmed Khan supported the alleged attackers by questioning the government over the duties and safety of ASHAs.
On News18 Kannada, anchor Prithviraj Haranahalli disparagingly compared the Tablighi Jamaat’s Nizamuddin West headquarters with China’s Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic.
On Public TV, anchor Aravinda Sethurao claimed that the Muslims in quarantine in Bidar were demanding “luxurious facilities”, and even blackmailing doctors and nurses saying, “We will spit on you, touch you if hi-fi facilities and rooms are not given.” Sethurao brought on the district health official overseeing Bidar’s quarantine facilities and tried to get him to back up these allegations. But when he didn’t, the anchor claimed the official was helpless and could not reveal what was actually happening.
On the same channel on April 3, anchor HR Ranganath alleged that a Muslim man in a hospital had spat on a doctor, and urged people to slap him and break his teeth. He went on to insinuate that the Tablighi Jamaat had been formed to sow enmity towards Hindus and India.
Public TV also reported on March 14 that four Muslim youth from Bhatkal had refused to be tested because of “religious reasons”. Its report was picked up by Hindu nationalist media outlets OpIndia and MyNation.
OpIndia headlined its “Islam does not approve: Four Muslims who returned from Dubai threaten health officials in Karnataka, refuse to undergo coronavirus test.” My Nation “Coronavirus outbreak: 4 youths in Karnataka refuse to undergo tests, saying their religion forbids them.”
Alt News fact checked the report and found it to be fake. They with Uttara Kannada’s district magistrate, Harish Kumar K, who said there had been no such incident. Testing of people returning from abroad was going smoothly, he added, and all those involved were cooperating fully.
Public TV subsequently removed its show from Youtube, but didn’t issue a clarification or an apology. OpIndia and My Nation have still not taken down their stories.
Not just institutionally, some prominent journalists were also individually culpable of spreading anti-Muslim hatred.
Vishweshwar Bhat, editor-in-chief of Vishwavani Daily, a Kannada newspaper, put out several tweets defaming the Muslim community.
Another tweet contained this vile Islamophobic cartoon.
Apart from defaming the Muslim community, some Kannada TV channels also spread unverified claims. BTV, for example, that the government had banned the sale of meat, before modifying its claim to the chief minister issuing a notice to shut down markets and shops selling chicken and mutton. Neither claim was true. The channel removed this video from Youtube after a fact check by .
Asked what she made of the Kannada media’s coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, a veteran journalist who asked not to be named lamented that it had “reached a new low”. “Even a global pandemic has been reported so disgracefully that a reporter’s hatred towards a particular community is published as a special report by a newspaper,” he said, adding that media should be educating the public about the hazards of violating lockdown regulations and telling the stories of the poor, the homeless and the migrant workers who have lost livelihoods and are returning to their villages in droves.
Fahad echoed the sentiment. Recounting his experience distributing food rations in Bellandur, Panathur, and Marathahalli areas of the city, where around 7,800 poor families are struggling for food and proper sanitation, he questioned, “Will they get themselves tested by paying Rs 4,500? Our country of crores has tested only a handful of people. I found one lady had all the symptoms of coronavirus when we checked her temperature and other parameters. We had to call an ambulance and quarantine her. The media should address these issues, and not further the Hindu-Muslim divide.”
Siddharth KJ, one of the founders of the advocacy group , demanded that media outlets peddling communal hatred be booked under penal provisions that deal with deliberately and maliciously outraging religious feelings of any class of citizens, and promoting enmity on grounds of religion and race.
Kapil Kajal is a freelance writer based in Bangalore and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.