It’s well documented how sections of India’s mainstream media went on a and overdrive early last year when a congregation held by the Tablighi Jamaat movement in Delhi led to a surge in coronavirus infections, unleashing a tide of anti-Muslim animus and hate speech online and offline.
More than a year later, on June 16, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, in separate orders, pulled up Kannada news channels News18 Kannada and Suvarna News and English TV channel Times Now for their coverage of the congregation.
The regulator’s orders came on a batch of complaints filed last April by the Campaign Against Hate Speech, a volunteer group based in Bengaluru. The campaign was started by lawyers, teachers, activists, and academicians in February 2020 to track hateful media coverage, particularly that targeted at minority communities.
Calling a couple of shows aired by News18 Kannada in April 2020 “highly objectionable”, the NBSA said in its that the “tone, tenor and language was crass, prejudicial and disrespectful”.
It directed the channel to pay a fine of Rs 1,00,000 within seven days of the receipt of the order, for violating the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards as also principles of self-regulation relating to impartiality and objectivity. The channel was further told to air a “full screen” text apology with a voiceover on June 23, before its 9 pm show.
Suvarna News, parts of whose coverage the NBSA noted would have an “insidious” effect and even “incite” communal violence, was to pay a fine of Rs 50,000.
Both channels were also told to immediately take down the hateful shows from their websites, YouTube, and any other digital platform.
Times Now, meanwhile, was a “censure” “for telecasting a programme on a sensitive issue which could create communal dissensions amongst communities”. It was also told to avoid bringing panellists on debate shows who are known to have “rabid and extreme views”.
Maitreyi Krishan, a lawyer with the Campaign Against Hate Speech, said at the start of the pandemic “the way in which these channels were putting out what they called ‘coverage’ of various events was blatantly islamophobic and completely with an intent to communalise the situation”.
Krishan added that there was a need to show that “this isn’t okay, it was important to tell them that they had to be held accountable”.
As for the NBSA orders, she said they clearly recognised that what happened was wrong. She, however, felt the regulator should have directed Times Now and Suvarna News too to air apologies on air.
‘Venom’, ‘devils’, ‘toxicity’
In its orders, the NBSA noted specific instances of objectionable “coverage” of the Tablighi Jamaat by the three TV channels.
The against News18 Kannada was for two shows broadcast on April 1 last year. In the first , the anchor showed an undated video of a gathering of Muslims and declared, “You need to notice that the entire nation has been infected with corona because of that one congregation.” The NBSA flagged this as “unacceptable”.
In the second , the regulator took exception to the use of phrases such as “venom” and “Nizamuddin toxicity”. It said the news report was based on “pure conjecture” and “crossed all boundaries of good taste and sensibility without concern for feelings of a religious group”.
Shilpa Prasad, an advocate with the CAHS, said the media’s coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat had started to have “severe consequences” and so it was important to let these news channels know that there were people who cared about what they were showing.
“You can’t just come and say, here is this picture of Muslims crowding and, therefore, coronavirus is their fault,” she said, referring to the News18 Kannada programme, “I mean this is ridiculous.”
The against Suvarna News was for seven shows aired between March 31 and April 4 last year. The NBSA pulled up the news channel for “promoting and spreading hatred” through its programmes, “which may have affected lives”. It noted that the channel used words like “these people” and “devils” to address attendees of the Jamaat.
The complaint stated that in one of the shows, the anchor declared, “Delhi’s hell is partly in the Nizamuddin mosque.”
Talking about how the Kannada media the congregation and why they felt it was critical to complain against them, Manavi Atri of CAHS said while the “traditional media still gets some sort of a response, regional media goes terribly unchecked”.
As for Times Now, censured for an April 2, 2020 show titled “Is Tablighi Jamaat willfully sabotaging India?”, the NBSA said the anchor’s remarks lacked objectivity and impartiality.
How did these channels respond?
All three channels claimed in their responses to the complaints against them that their coverage wasn’t communal.
While Suvarna News invoked “freedom of speech” to defend its coverage, News18 Kannada described the allegations against it as “false, frivolous and baseless”. Times Now said the allegations against it were “frivolous” and “vexatious”.
That these channels justified their coverage was “shameful”, Krishan of CAHS said, because it wasn’t only communal but “factually incorrect”.
Newslaundry contacted the three channels to ask if they would comply with the NBSA orders. This report will be updated if we get a response.
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