The media circus

Print edition : March 27, 2020

A television reporter at work on a vandalised street in Delhi, on February 27. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Fair reportage got lost in the "hate narrative" of "nationalistic" TV channels and the fake news spread on social media.

The role of the media in the clashes between supporters of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and those opposed to it spread over three days in Delhi in the last week of February needs to be examined independently of the incidents themselves. On March 6, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry imposed a 48-hour ban (up to 7:30 p.m. on March 8) on transmission and retransmission by two Kerala-based television channels, Asianet News and Media One, for “irresponsible reporting”. (The ban was, however, lifted in the early hours of March 7.) The channels, according to the government order, showed violence “in a manner which highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community”, apart from being critical of the role of the Delhi Police and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.

The order stated: “Such telecast could incite violence and pose danger to the maintenance of law and order situation, particularly when the situation is already highly volatile and charged up and riots are taking place in the area with reports of killings and bloodbath....” Both channels were earlier issued show cause notices on why action should not be taken against them under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, and the guidelines of uplinking and downlinking. Dissatisfied with the replies given by the channels, the Ministry concluded that they had violated the rules prescribed under the programme code of the 1995 Act and the telecasting rules under it. Frontline was informed that a reporter of one of the channels had actually helped people who were attacked by rioters and taken them to hospital at great personal risk. There were reports that the rampaging mob attacked journalists as it did not want its actions to be recorded. One journalist had the harrowing experience of being asked to take off his trousers to confirm his religious identity.

The government has not taken any action to date against the televised incendiary remarks made by a Union Minister and other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders but it was quick to act against the two TV channels, charging them with posing a danger to the law and order situation. Interestingly, the government had chosen to turn a blind eye to some “hyper-nationalistic” channels, whose anchors were contributing significantly to the “hate narrative”. Demonising members of the minority community has become the new normal for these channels. While the incidents of violence were covered by several conscientious reporters on the spot at great risk to their own lives, the “nationalistic” media consistently created a notion that the CAA protest was obstructionist and politically motivated, dead set on giving India a bad image, and that the riots were the handiwork of the minority community. This ideological bombardment had an effect on the already polarised sections of the majority community members. Videos of incendiary speeches and violence were shared indiscriminately on social media. While some of the videos were helpful as they identified the perpetrators and exposed the ill-preparedness of the Delhi Police, there were others aimed at demonising the minority community. In fact, the ongoing peaceful protests against the CAA, the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens across the country were portrayed as a “Muslim” issue. The print media remained balanced by and large, with the majority of them underlining the need to find a solution to the issue.

But efforts to discredit the secular and democratic nature of the protests were made regularly either by focussing excessively on terms used in speeches at the protest venues and by simply creating the impression that the sit-ins by members of the minority community had disrupted normal life in the city. It was this narrative that was watched by most people in the Hindi-speaking belt, including in the National Capital Territory. In the run-up to the Delhi Assembly election, it was this section of the media that made the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi an issue, with three channels in particular, and their anchors making it a point to highlight the “inconvenience” faced by commuters in that area. The fact that it was not protesters but the police who had placed barricades unnecessarily on stretches far from the protest site was ignored. This was highlighted by a small section of the media.

Yet, despite the constant efforts to give the protests a certain colour by sections of the media and by spokespersons of the BJP, Delhi voters exercised their franchise differently excepting in some areas like North East Delhi district where the polarisation was sharp. It was this narrative, coupled with incendiary remarks by BJP leaders in the run-up to the election and after, that created the context for the riots, a fact that few media outlets were willing to accept and underscore. While some have questioned why one particular leader has not yet been booked for his hate speeches, the diffidence to criticise the Union Home Ministry for going slow on the purveyors of hate speech has been baffling. On the contrary, there were channels that picked on slogans and Urdu words raised by the anti-CAA protesters, and with amplified and exaggerated righteousness sought to convey the impression that the slogans had the potential to divide the country.

There was also an attempt to equate the incendiary speeches threatening violence by some BJP leaders with those of members of the opposition and those belonging to the artistic community who exhorted people to oppose the CAA using democratic means. Hence, speeches made by BJP leaders Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra and Parvesh Verma were equated with those made by Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, All India Majilis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leaders Akbaruddin Owaisi and Waaris Pathan, the actor Swara Bhasker and the activist Arundhati Roy, among others. The comparison was ridiculous.

Sterotyping

When violence broke out between two groups on February 23-24 on the Jafrabad-Maujpur stretch, there was excessive focus on a young man with a beard who pointed a pistol at a policeman. His face was highlighted. This was the “Jafrabad” shooter and the TV media outed his name, betraying his religious identity, totally oblivious of the consequences of such stereotyping. This was motivated reporting as there was hardly any footage showing the attackers from the other side who people said had the support of the police. The same yardstick was used to overemphasise the “recovery” of petrol bombs and other incendiary material from the rooftop of an Aam Aadmi Party corporator Tahir Hussain, whose house was under attack, and there were videos of him seeking help. The AAP distanced itself from Hussain, barring the party’s Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh, who demanded an impartial inquiry, but sections of the media created a completely new narrative, shifting the focus from the remarks made by Kapil Mishra (who has been given ‘Y’ category security and 24/7 protection) and the other BJP leaders to the alleged role of the Muslim corporator and the Jafrabad “shooter”. The caricaturing was complete irrespective of the fact that both Hindus and Muslims suffered and the loss of life and property was far greater among the minority community.

A lot of fake videos were generated, with one showing how members of the minority community were given money to engineer the riots.

A news portal, AltNews, which specialises in exposing fake news showed how old images from Syria and Bangladesh were passed off as footage of victims of the Delhi riots. One woman academic, known more for being an unabashed Narendra Modi supporter, shared a video on her twitter handle which showed men in skullcaps indulging in violence. A fact check by a leading newspaper found that the image was from Bangladesh. AltNews reporters further exposed a morphed newspaper clipping of an advertisement that indicated that the AAP government was helping only Muslim victims. The original advertisement did not single out any denomination for relief. The fake news industry did not stop here. A BJP leader, (Major) Surendra Poonia, tweeted an image that showed anti-CAA protesters throwing stones at the police, with the comment that this was terrorism controlled from Rawalpindi (Pakistan). It was retweeted some 11,000 times. Again, AltNews uncovered that it was an image from Ahmedabad and unrelated to the Delhi violence.

Some TV channels disproportionately focussed on the murder of the Intelligence Bureau employee, sharing gory details of how he was allegedly murdered without basing it on any forensic evidence. The objective was to inflame passion. The family members were repeatedly shown weeping by at least two or more channels, to underscore the fact that the victim belonged to the majority community. One particular anchor, known for his loyalty to the current government at the Centre, urged the victim’s brother to comment on the post-mortem report on national television. If this was not incendiary, what was? And, predictably, the grieving brother blamed the minority community for the violence. “Kya jehaad mein jali Dilli?” (Did Delhi burn under jehad?) was the ticker on one such TV news programme.

The channel also claimed to have “exposed” the danga factory (riot factory) of Tahir Hussain. Leading women anchors of at least two TV channels picked up used petrol bombs giving details with military precision on how they were meant to be used. While the opposition parties and critics of the CAA were attacked relentlessly, these very channels failed to pose tough questions to the Home Ministry. It was as if the CAA protests were to blame for the communal violence in Delhi. Worse still, there was back-to-back coverage of every second of the United States President Donald Trump’s two-day visit tp India on February 24 and 25, with little or no discussion on the takeaways from the high-profile visit even as Delhi burned.

A letter from the Editor


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