They don’t scream and shout like your TV anchors. They smile and purr politely into the camera. But the objective is hardly different.
As a steep Covid surge wreaks havoc in India, Doordarshan’s programming is not focused on the unfolding tragedy, but lionising prime minister Modi and his government, while projecting his political opponents as tyrannical or incompetent.
DD News is a state-owned channel funded by the taxpayers, and one of the most watched channels in the country with penetration in both urban and rural areas. It is run by Prasar Bharati, which in turn comes under the ministry of information and broadcasting.
According to official figures, , more than 38,000 Indians succumbed to Covid this month. The Narendra Modi government has been squarely blamed for this disaster: it in installing oxygen plants, its Covid task force in months leading to the surge, it organised election rallies and did not intervene to stop the Kumbh Mela.
And yet, in the three days of DD News programming observed by Newslaundry on April 24, 25 and 28, there was never a mention of how citizens were running from hospital to hospital for beds, oxygen and antiviral drugs. The features instead droned on about how the centre had ramped up oxygen supply and increased Remdesivir production under Modi’s leadership.
This comes at a time when even the pro-BJP news channels have uncharacteristically the centre’s pandemic policies.
Over the weekend, a ticker on DD News told viewers that 27 people had died in a Covid hospital in Iraq’s Baghdad because of a fire. But there was not a single mention of the 25 people who died in a Delhi hospital due to low oxygen pressure on Friday night.
Modi the saviour
“The country’s battle against corona is still on,” a voiceover told DD News viewers during a Sunday morning bulletin. “And it is being led by prime minister Narendra Modi. The PM is holding non-stop meetings to not just know the situation but also give directives to different departments.”
The visuals – played multiple times that day – showed the bearded prime minister sitting before a long wooden table, a piece of paper in hand, listening attentively to policymakers and industrialists over a video conference.
This then cut to a slide with a solemn Modi occupying the left half of the screen, while the other half listed the decisions taken by him to tackle the pandemic, like waiving custom duties on oxygen and oxygen-related items for three months.
In the headlines segments, anchors spoke about how an Oxygen Express train was meeting the nationwide demand for the life-saving gas and how the Delhi police – which comes under the union home ministry – was doing a wonderful job in helping transport oxygen tankers.
The accompanying visuals showed a train carrying oxygen tankers, people taking RT-PCR tests and receiving treatment in spacious facilities, and assembly lines producing thousands of bottled drugs.
A more relaxed, smiling Modi appeared onscreen when DD News spoke about how his government is helping the poor in the pandemic by providing free rations.
The grovelling anchor told viewers that not only were the rations provided under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana, but that the move was praised on Twitter by home minister Amit Shah, defense minister Rajnath Singh, and BJP president JP Nadda. The tweets of the three ministers were then broadcast and read out in full.
DD News’s bombast about Modi’s supreme leadership only grew by primetime. “In this era of corona, to stop the shortage of oxygen in the country, there are warlike efforts under the prime minister’s leadership,” gloated the anchor. “PM Cares fund will now be used to install 551 oxygen generation plants, which will be setup in district hospitals. The prime minister has ordered that these plants be installed as soon as possible.”
The order on oxygen plants was also packaged as a story, recorded by a different narrator who pumped up the pomposity, and inflicted on DD News viewers starting 8 am on Monday.
At no point did the channel bother to present facts that punched inconvenient holes in its story: that the tender for 150 such oxygen plants was put out by the Modi government in October last year. And by mid-April, as by Scroll, only five such plants were functional.
Sangh altruism, Mamata’s tyranny, and Kejriwal’s incompetence
At peak primetime, 9 pm on Sundays, DD News runs a segment called “Good News” on positive news on the ongoing pandemic. On April 25, its subjects included the volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, who set up a Covid care facility in Pune.
“Some swayamsevaks have taken the pains to help Covid patients,” the host said. “What is special is that they’re doing it for free at a time when coronavirus is ravaging the country.”
The channel then showed the visuals of the facility, which had three beds per room, reportedly meant for patients with mild symptoms who need isolation. The host did not clarify whether the facility provided any oxygen, like this , but did say that patients received their morning tea and pranayam.
The channel’s programming also seems to have a political motive. While dreadful visuals and critical commentary were entirely absent during any segment on Modi or BJP-governed states, they were telecast liberally when non-BJP states were concerned.
On Wednesday morning, for instance, when a hospital fire in Maharashtra’s Thane four patients, videos of people carrying the injured were played on DD News.
The Delhi High Court the Kejriwal government on the knuckles also became the subject of a long panel discussion on Tuesday. “Corona wave: High court comes down heavily on Delhi government,” declared the ticker.
There was no such discussion on the Allahabad High Court, which, on the same day, the Adityanath government that the “ghost of corona is marching on the roads and streets of the major cities of Uttar Pradesh”.
DD News’ coverage was similarly skewed when it came to the ongoing assembly elections. On Sunday, the channel broadcast a virtual election speech by JP Nadda in West Bengal’s Manikchak, a day before the seventh phase of polling in the state.
“Nadda said that the people of Bengal should be unafraid and vote against the tyranny of the state government,” the anchor told us, before Nadda’s original speech lacerating the Mamata Banerjee government played for 30-odd seconds.
A similar speech by any opposition leader did not find a space on the channel.
This sort of coverage is not new, though. During the Lok Sabha election in 2019, the Election Commission had DD News to provide a “level playing field” to all political parties, since its coverage was “not in accordance with the principle of maintaining neutrality”.