On June 16 (Wednesday), the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) censured English news channel Times Now and fined two Kannada channels — News 18 Kannada and Suvarna News — for their biased coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, in which ‘they had targeted members of Tablighi Jamaat as well as the Muslim community in 2020. NBSA, an independent body set up by the News Broadcasters Association (an association of news television broadcasters), has taken the action based on complaints filed by Bengaluru-based Campaign Against Hate Speech (CAHS) in 2020.
The campaign, which is run by a group of activists, parents, lawyers, and academicians to hold the media accountable, had moved the NBSA against these channels for the hateful coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. News18 Kannada has been fined Rs 1 lakh, which has to be paid to the News Broadcasters Association within seven days of the receipt of the order, for violating the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards as well as Principles of Self Regulation relating to impartiality and objectivity under the NBSA.
The complaint against Times Now
The Campaign Against Hate Speech (CAHS) had approached the NBSA on April 14, 2020, raising a complaint against a programme anchored by anchor Sakshi Joshi titled, “Is Tablighi Jamaat wilfully sabotaging India?”, aired on April 2, 2020. CAHS pointed out that Swati Joshi and other panellists — BJP spokesperson Narendra Taneja and academician Geeta Bhatt — targeted the Muslim community. CAHS said that Swati made many unsubstantiated claims and accusations through the show including that “appalling reports are coming in that the Tablighis while in isolation are refusing to abide by social distancing”, “they are spitting, abusing, and thrashing the frontline warriors who are attending to them”, “not just did they defiantly flout the call for a nation-wide lockdown and infect hundreds of people, but they are now refusing to get tested,”
BJP’s Narendra Taneja went on to say that a Muslim panellist on the show was communalising the discussion and said, “This is precisely the problem as such people have their agenda’.” Geeta Bhatt, on the other hand, went on to claim that a certain section of people is coming out of mosques and spitting on roads.
Times Now, in its reply, claimed that the programme was not one-sided and had varied voices. The channel said that it was not against the Muslim community but merely questioned the Tablighi Jamaat. It also said that the word Muslim was not used by the anchor and pointed to an interview with a public health official, who said that some people who were part of the Jamath were not quarantined properly.
After listening to Times Now’s version and a detailed rejoinder by CAHS, NBSA concluded that CAHS was well within its rights to file a complaint (their locus standi was challenged by Times Now). It also found that certain statements made by the anchor violated the NBSA Code of Ethics and there was no proof to substantiate some of the imputations. The NBSA, in its order dated June 16, 2021, issued a censure to the channel for telecasting any programme that could cause communal dissensions.
The complaint against News18 Kannada
CAHS complained against News18 Kannada for broadcasting two programmes — “Do you know how Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz which has spread the Coronavirus to the nation” and “How many have gone to Delhi’s Jamaat congregation from Karnataka?” Both programmes were telecast on April 1, 2020.
In the first programme, a video of Muslims gathered in an area was shown and then the anchor went on to allege that this congregation led to the spread of coronavirus in India. The complaint quotes the anchor as saying, “You can see the situation in Nizamuddin Markaz. How people are seated so close by without social distancing,” without confirming when the video was filmed. The anchor has stated, “You need to notice that the entire nation has been infected with Corona due to that one congregation.”
In the second show titled, “How many have gone to Delhi’s Jamaat states, the congregation from Karnataka?”, the anchor likened the Jamaat congregation to Wuhan in China, implying that it is the epicentre of the spread of the virus in India. “The question seems to arise, has the Jamaat somewhere became Wuhan? Because this virus has been spread to the whole world from China’s Wuhan,” the anchor said. The complaint added that the ticker on the channel during the broadcast, too, was objectionable with lines like, “Has Delhi Jamaat became Wuhan of Karnataka? Muslims of the state are infected with Corona.”
The complainant alleged that these statements were factually incorrect as the Tablighi Jamaat programme was concluded before the announcement of the official lockdown on March 24, 2020. The complaint further alleged that by “attempting to portray one community as the sole responsibility-bearer for spreading the disease, the channel engaged in fear-mongering, and rousing communal disharmony. These statements were a clear attempt to promote and incite hatred against communities and people on the basis of religion.”
News18 Kannada, in its written reply submitted on May 1, 2020, denied all allegations as “false, frivolous, and baseless.” The broadcaster said that it had informed the viewers about the spread of COVID-19 and about the various steps taken by the government. News18 further added that they broadcast the statement of Karnataka Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai, where he had requested people who attended the Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi to come forward voluntarily for COVID-19 tests being conducted by the Karnataka government.
After listening to all sides, NBSA announced that the “broadcaster had violated the fundamental principles of impartiality, objectivity and neutrality in reporting and also the guideline No 9 relating to racial and religious harmony, which states that “racial and religious stereotyping should be avoided.” It also found that the titles had an insidious effect, which could incite communal violence and imposed a fine of Rs 50,000, other than censuring the channel.
The complaint against Suvarna News
The complaint against Kannada news channel Suvarna News was for seven programmes telecast between March 31 and April 4, 2020, most of them targeting the Tablighi Jamaat without any proof, CAHS said.
In one programme telecast on Aprl 2, the channel showed the video of a young Muslim man wiping his nose with a currency note and said that “corona criminals have been exposed”; “these people are more dangerous than the coronavirus”; and “corona is a god given donation for such people.” The anchor also referred to Muslims as ‘them’ and ‘these devils,’ CAHS said.
As in the case of Times Now, CAHS argued that the lockdown in Delhi was imposed on March 23 and the Tablighi meeting happened before that. The CAHS also pointed out that in one programme, the anchor kept saying that only mosques are open while temples are shut and that all mosques should be shut. CAHS said that the programmes lacked neutrality, objectivity and were crass and prejudiced.
During a hearing on September 22, 2020, CAHS said that Suvarna News did not have any proof to show that the Tablighi Jamaat members, who were quarantined in Karnataka’s Bidar, had asked for luxurious things. They said an unknown source gave them a tip-off. NBSA did not find anything objectionable in this programme as this was based on a source.
However, after viewing six other programmes, NBSA was of the view that these programmes clearly indicated that the entire blame for the spreading of the virus needs to be placed on the Jamaat and the community. The titles were insidious and can incite communal tension, NBSA found. The NBSA also found that the words used were highly objectionable and had spread hatred and the defence of free speech given by the channel was unacceptable. NBSA issued a censure to Suvarna News and also asked them to pay a fine of Rs 50,000. Suvarna News has been asked to delete all links of six programmes from all platforms, including YouTube.
(The News Minutes)