Our cover story looks at the enormous pressure placed on students by India’s deeply faulty education system and the social cracks through which the young fall. A set of insightful articles by our reporters, by the eminent educationist Krishna Kumar, and by our writer Shreevatsa Nevatia reveals the dimensions of this unfolding disaster and I cannot better what they say. I decided therefore that my note this time would focus on another, equally pernicious, disease—the one that has infected Indian media.
A recent note by the INDIA grouping said that its members would not interact with a set of television anchors. Announcing it, Congress leader Pawan Khera said: “We will not cooperate with anyone spreading hatred in society.”
The statement provoked protests. Some said the move violated the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Some called it a ban, which it is not. Some said it would backfire by making martyrs of the anchors. Others said it would have been prudent to do it quietly, without announcement.
Study the list. The names on it are of those who have used television to spread the most virulent hate speech the country has ever seen. These anchors and their ilk have accused the country’s Muslims of “thook jihad”, “virus jihad”, “economic jihad”, “flood jihad”, “love jihad”, and “zameen jihad”, among other kinds. They have called for the boycott of shops, businesses, tenants, tourists, and students of Muslim, minority, and migrant origin. They have justified lynching and rape.
One anchor ran a fake campaign against a Delhi schoolteacher, provoking a mob to attack her. Another called reports of the rape of a Dalit girl in UP’s Hathras a “Shaheen Bagh conspiracy”. During the CAA and farmers’ protests, protesters were described as traitors and terrorists. The coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death was disgraceful by any media standards, even the rock-bottom ones India currently sets.
Let us be very clear: what these anchors peddle is not journalism. It is hate speech, it is smear campaigns, it is indictment by insinuation. Any democracy worth its name would have shut them down a long time ago, but New India has nurtured and indeed encouraged them under the pretext of free speech while channel owners have cultivated them with a cold-blooded eye on TRPs. If some political parties have finally chosen to snub a few such abhorrent anchors, more power to them, even if many names are missing from the list. To advocate “prudent” alternatives is to display political expediency with no concern for ethicality. It demonstrates a pusillanimity that is becoming all too common now.
“Let us be very clear: what these anchors peddle is not journalism. It is hate speech, it is smear campaigns, it is indictment by insinuation.”
The News Broadcasting & Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) said the move was “against the ethos of democracy”. Yet, this self-regulatory body has not done nearly enough to shut down hate speech. It has fined Aman Chopra, whose name is on the list, Rs. 25,000 to Rs. 50,000 for communal polarisation. The Supreme Court has questioned the adequacy of these fines and asked why NBDSA could not take such anchors off air.
Banning documentaries, jailing journalists, and raiding media offices are attacks on press freedom. Boycotting journalists who criticise the government is an attack on press freedom. Declining interviews to journalists with conflicting political views is an attack on press freedom. Refusing to talk to anchors who broadcast hate speech is not.
Inciting communalism and violence is a crime. How much further must the media head into Radio Rwanda zone before one is allowed to call it out?