Giving TV news a pass, Centre says media didn't ‘communalise’ Tablighi Jamaat congregation

The government dishonestly cited Newslaundry reports to argue that reporting on the congregation ‘reflected multiple viewpoints of the stakeholders’.

ByAyush Tiwari
Giving TV news a pass, Centre says media didn't ‘communalise’ Tablighi Jamaat congregation
Shambhavi Thakur
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For the second time in two months, the Modi government has told the Supreme Court that media reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat congregation held in Delhi in March this year was “balanced and neutral”.

The government made this point in a fresh affidavit dated November 13, where it relied solely on instances of reporting in print and digital media. No instance of the TV news media’s reporting on the congregation was mentioned in the affidavit.

Moreover, the Centre dishonestly used Newslaundry reports highlighting hate on TV channels to shore up its weak argument.

In April, a petition by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind in the Supreme Court had alleged that the “unfortunate incident of the Tablighi Jamaat was used to demonise and blame the entire Muslim community” on social media and in sections of print and electronic media. It had noted that “Islamophobic headlines” and “incendiary statements by TV news anchors” led to the “communalisation” of the issue.

In October, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had told the Supreme Court that it had “neither come across nor has been intimated with any specific media report” which violated the programme code in the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, or the government’s uplinking guidelines.

Chief Justice SA Bobde had chastised solicitor general Tushar Mehta for this, claiming the Centre was being “evasive” and making “unnecessary, nonsensical” claims.

The latest affidavit shows that the Centre has still not addressed the top court’s criticism.

“First you did not file a proper affidavit and then you filed an affidavit which did not deal with the two important questions,” Bobde told the solicitor general on Tuesday. “This way it cannot be done Mr Mehta, we are not satisfied with your reply.”

The court then cut to the heart of the matter: “We had asked you to specify how the Cable TV Act can be used to control the content. The affidavit is silent on this.”

The TV news media was the factory where anti-Muslim hatred was produced, packaged and exported in the wake of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. In a report in April, Newslaundry had pointed out how channels like Zee News, India TV, News 18 India, News Nation and Republic TV had anchors and panelists taking jibes at Muslims and Islam on their shows on the congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighbourhood.

India TV flashed banners like “corona aaya...maulana laya” and “superspreader maulana”. Zee News’ Sudhir Chaudhary accused the Jamaat of “lying and betraying the nation in the name of Islam”. News Nations showed pictures of men in skullcaps and asked: “Are there corona bombs in your neighbourhood?”

The Newslaundry report was cited in the Jamaat Ulema-i-Hind petition to the top court to illustrate its claims of poor reporting on news channels.

It has also been cited by the Modi government in its affidavit from last week. In it, the government said that by “selectively” referring to such reports from “web portals” and “private fact check portals”, the petitioner had created an “impression that the media had communalised the issue of Tablighi Jamaat” and that this is “a false narrative about the role of media.”

To buttress this assertion, it cited another Newslaundry Hindi article and added that the “same news portal published an article...which has given an opinion about how the fight against Covid-19 has been adversely affected by Tablighi Jamaat which has taken the country and the Muslims on the backfoot.”

The government’s reading of Newslaundry articles is flimsy and its argument devious. The second article did point out that the congregation had led to a spike in the number of Covid cases in India. It also noted that the body had misled the police about the number of people stuck inside the Markaz headquarters in Nizamuddin. However, the other half of that article called out the “shameless face of a section of the Indian media” over its reporting on the matter.

“Islam and Muslims became the target because of a mistake committed by the Tablighi Jamaat,” the report said, referring to primetime coverage on news channels like Zee News and Aaj Tak. “The coronavirus matter was put aside to give this issue a communal colour.”

Reporting on Tablighi Jamaat is not a singular instance of TV news media’s bigoted bulletins. Newslaundry has consistently tracked hate on Indian news channels, along with those who sponsor it, in a series called Bloodlust TV.

In its affidavit, the Modi government ignored incendiary reporting on certain news channels and instead cited Times of India, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, The Wire, The Print and Newslaundry to highlight “objective”, “balanced” and “neutral” reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat congregation.

This is not the first time this government has shielded a section of the TV news media from likely judicial admonishment. When demands for regulation grew after the “UPSC Jihad” show on Sudarshan News was stayed by the Supreme Court in September, the solicitor general showed up in the top court’s hearings with befuddled plans to regulate the digital media.

The Modi government has several supporters among TV anchors, so it is understandable why even a slap on the wrist seems inconceivable. With a second “disappointing” affidavit in the Supreme Court this month, the Centre has three more weeks to explain how it can deter hate on the airwaves.

“If it does not exist,” Bobde told Mehta on Tuesday, referring to a regulatory authority, “then you create an authority.”

Update: A previous version of this story referred to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind as the Jamaat Ulema-i-Hind. This has been corrected.

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