Rajdeep penalised: How come these India Today anchors are still on air?

India Today has taken anchor Rajdeep Sardesai off air and docked his pay for misreporting a farmer’s death. It must now apply these standards to other gems in its studios.

WrittenBy:Ayush Tiwari
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It is a happening day in the world of TV news. Even before primetime, India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai has been taken off air and Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV is suing Times Now’s Navika Kumar.

While we can let Goswami and Kumar sort things out personally, Sardesai’s fate has opened up news studios to allegations of ethical conduct.

On Thursday, confronted with claims of misreporting on the tractor rally, India Today put its foot down and removed Sardesai, the channel’s consulting editor, from air for two weeks. The seasoned anchor, who faced hostility from the protesting farmers on the day of the rally, will also not be paid for the month.

The news channel must be applauded for holding the journalist accountable for his clumsy work. (Even though an apology across mediums would have done the job.) But this new gold standard of journalism must now apply to the other prima donnas in the network’s studios whose records in the realm of reporting are far worse than Sardesai on a bad day.

Here are the top four.

Gaurav Sawant

The Baburao Ganpatrao Apte of TV news, Sawant is senior executive editor at India Today. In December 2017, when a 21-year-old youth’s decomposed corpse was found in Karnataka’s Uttar Kannada district, Sawant picked up social media rumours of the victim’s supposed mutilation and castration and ran it on primetime. India Today eventually took down the story after a rebuttal by the Karnataka police and a fact-check by Alt News.

In 2019, Sawant also passed off historians as terrorists on his show. In 2016, he discovered ISIS attacks in Assam that weren’t. He promoted spurious rumours about tensions along the India-Pakistan border in May 2018 and whipped up digital nationalism. The army had to deny his claims.

Sawant has also broadcast old videos as “breaking news”, claiming that they were obtained by his reporters on the ground. In January 2018, he packaged a 2016 video showing the Pakistan army firing mortars in North Waziristan as cross-border attacks in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 2016, when tensions erupted in the Kashmir valley following the death of the militant leader Burhan Wani, Sawant aired an “exclusive video” of a stone-pelter’s confession. The video turned out to be from 2008. Sawant’s colleagues had to suffer the consequences of his less-than-credible reporting. “We have our credibility at stake here,” an India Today staffer told Newslaundry at the time.

Rohit Sardana

The India Today Network’s answer to Kapil Mishra, Sardana is an anchor on Hindi news channel Aaj Tak.

In August last year, Sardana falsely claimed in a segment that 40 Chinese soldiers had been killed during the Galwan clashes between India and China a few months before. He broadcast a video of a cemetery in China, claiming that it housed the remains of Chinese soldiers killed by the Indian troops. The cemetery, located in Kangxiwa town in Aksai Chin, actually contained the graves of Chinese soldiers who were killed in the Sino-Indian war in 1962.

In November 2020, Sardana told his viewers that India had done “another airstrike on Pakistan’s terrorists”. This never happened, as the Press Information Bureau clarified on Twitter.

In 2018, Sardana spewed communal bile while reporting on the Kasganj violence in Uttar Pradesh between Hindus and Muslims over the hoisting of the tricolour following a “tiranga yatra”. According to Alt News, Sardana played up the fictitious angle of Muslim aggression against Hindus. On his show, he asked, “When will the government crack down on anti-nationals of Kasganj” and “If not in Hindustan, then will tricolour be unfurled in Pakistan?”.

In the days that followed, the district magistrate of Kasganj and ground reports by Aaj Tak reporters busted the Sardanaite myths.

Rahul Kanwal

The opposite of Bob Woodward, Kanwal is India Today’s news director. On April 10 last year, the channel aired a “special investigation” led by Rahul Kanwal called “Madrasa Hotspot”. The show “stung” caretakers of three madrasas in the National Capital Region and made two big claims: that the three caretakers deliberately kept students in their madrasas in cramped spaces and hid them from the police, violating lockdown guidelines, and that they had links with the Tablighi Jamaat.

None of this was true, as Newslaundry later reported. The students were not “hidden” in the madrasas; they stayed there because of a government advisory to educational institutions restricting travel and letting students stay on campus. The caretakers said they had no links with the Tablighi Jamaat, and the Delhi police confirmed this.

That month, Kanwal also falsely tweeted that India would get early access to a Covid vaccine produced in the United States in exchange for supplying Hydroxychloroquine.

Anjana Om Kashyap

The lowest bar in ground reporting was set by Anjana Om Kashyap at a hospital in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur during the acute encephalitis syndrome outbreak in 2019. As doctors scurried to look after ill infants, who were dying by the dozen, Kashyap barged into a ward and shouted at them, poking her golden mic and the camera light into their faces.

“If I didn’t switch on my mic, then you wouldn’t have turned around,” she yelled at one of them.

A month before the incident, Kashyap had misreported a statement by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, claiming that the politician had threatened to slap prime minister Narendra Modi. According to Alt News, Banerjee was reported as saying that she will “slap Modi” when she actually said, “I want to give PM Modi a tight slap of democracy.”

In February 2018, Kashyap picked up a quote from a parody account on Twitter and falsely attributed it to Maulana Atif Qadri. A month later, she misreported a Delhi High Court order and claimed that 20 MLAs of the Aam Aadmi Party had been disqualified.

Shweta Singh

On second thoughts, though, that whole GPS-nanotechnology episode was beyond misreporting or fake news. It was, shall we say, quite another realm of news anchoring.

What did Rajdeep do?

On a late broadcast on January 26, Sardesai was asked by anchor Shiv Aroor if he had jumped the gun by claiming that Navneet Singh, the farmer who died during the tractor rally, was killed after being shot by the Delhi police. “More than that,” Sardesai said, adding that the police version – that Singh died after his tractor overturned – “appears much more credible than what the protesters are claiming”.

One can certainly accuse Sardesai of erroneously reporting on a farmer’s death. In the process, he risked violence spiralling out of control. Given the facts of the case, a clear apology from the anchor and channel across platforms should have been forthcoming. He did not go that far, but at least offered some sort of a clarification.

Sawant, Sardana, Kanwal and Kashyap have hardly ever issued such clarifications on the fake news items mentioned in this piece. Not only have they pushed falsehoods that were a Google search away from being busted, but also tweaked the truth, targeted the weak, and fed hate to millions of viewers.

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