Lapdog narratives of the Kannada media

Print edition : October 09, 2020

Screenshot of a show on Suvarna News on April 10, 2020 where COVID-19 is termed ‘Tablighi Virus’.

Screenshot of a show on Public TV on Feb. 21, 2020 calling Amulya Leona and Ardra Narayan ‘Pakistan’s Devils’.

A report looks at the way hate speech flourishes in the Kannada media and tries to locate the factors that fuel it and the consequences that follow.

Over the past six years, under the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, large sections of the national mainstream media, particularly leading television news channels, have been accused of abandoning journalistic principles and acting as propaganda tools of the Central government while furthering the majoritarian ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In a recent column for the news portal, the journalist Shivam Vij wrote: “Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascent to power in 2014, TV news has become more of a Modi government mouthpiece.”

When they are not singing paeans to the Central government or targeting opposition political parties, many television news channels focus on trivial issues and keep viewers distracted from more serious national concerns. This helps the Modi government to avert close scrutiny. Observers of news media have linked this systematic vulgarisation of the media industry to the mad rush for TRPs (Television Rating Points), the concentration of media ownership and the advertisement-driven model of news production in India.

A case in point is the excessive airtime given to the suicide of the Hindi film actor Sushant Singh Rajput over the past three months, with the BJP adroitly using the issue to buttress its political campaign in the forthcoming elections in Bihar. The veteran journalist P. Sainath, founder of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), put it bluntly in a video posted online: “Your big corporate media may be cheating you or betraying your needs but they are being completely true to their design and purpose. It’s what they exist for. ‘Talk TV’ is a lucrative revenue model.”

Muslim as the “other”

More problematic and pernicious is the way in which television news channels constantly build up the Muslim as the “other” through a flawed narrative and provide ample time to aggressive individuals who brazenly vilify Indian Muslims. This helps the BJP, for which any religious polarisation is a shot in the arm. But it has dangerous consequences for millions of Muslims all over the country. Over the past few months, two events in which this bias was clearly visible on screen were the nationwide anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests and the discovery of a cluster of COVID cases in a congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi. In these events, the Muslim was targeted as someone whose actions were not in the nation’s interest. Some news anchors went to the absurd extent of talking about a “corona jehad”.

The situation is no different in the Kannada media. A new report titled “The Wages of Hate: Journalism in Dark Times” released by the Bengaluru-based collective Campaign Against Hate Speech (CAHS) on September 8 looks closely at the reportage of these two events in Kannada news media (mainly television). It concludes that “in both cases, the message from sections of the media was that these individuals and communities were not entitled to full constitutional rights”. While the report does not examine the role of social media in encouraging hatred against religious minorities, it notes that social media “remains an important shadow presence given the extent to which social media has shaped and influenced traditional news media”.

“Group defamation”

The first of the report’s five chapters attempts to conceptually define “hate speech”. It relies substantially on the work of the American legal scholar Jeremy Waldron, who uses the term “group defamation”, which means that “hate speech” targets not just an individual but an individual as a member of a group. Leading on from this, the idea of hate speech “…is fundamentally about challenging the very existence of certain classes of people, and is often directed towards minorities, saying that they do not have the right to exist in this country. Hate speech is a threat to the very idea of inclusiveness and pluralism—to the endeavour of working and living together, which is intimately connected with the Preamble to the Constitution of India through the terms, secularism and fraternity.” The report warns that hate speech, if not checked, “can lead to social and economic boycott, culminating finally in the ‘crime of crimes’, genocide”.

The report dedicates one chapter to understand the political economy of the Kannada media sector as “it helps link various structural and social factors to the need to amplify and promote instances of hate speech”. To understand this, the report uses Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model” (Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media).

In analysing the history of the Kannada media’s turn to the right, the report investigates the current ownership patterns. It states: “Media houses are primarily owned by businessmen, politicians and journalists. While there has been a strong presence of all the three major political parties in the past, we found that recently ownership patterns have begun to shift towards people who have been close to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in some form or the other.” It is because of this alignment of interests between the owners and the ruling party that there is a systemic bias towards the ruling party.

Interestingly, there is also a concentration of a sub-sect of Brahmins, the Havyaka Brahmins, among the editors of these media houses. Havyaka Brahmins have a traditionally close relationship with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.

The next section looks at specific cases of hate speech in the Kannada media during the anti-CAA protests and the reportage in the early stages of the pandemic. The report states: “There is a clear continuity between the media coverage of the anti-CAA protests and the coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat cluster with communal and hateful speech being the norm rather than the exception; where right-wing framing of events and people as part of an anti-national conspiracy has been reiterated without challenge or scrutiny; and viral videos on social media platforms have dictated the content of coverage.”

The report argues that Kannada media reportage “defamed and belittled individuals”, as evident in the case of Ardra Narayan, who held up a poster saying “Muslim, Dalit Kashmiri, Trans, Adivasi, freedom, freedom, freedom, now” during the anti-CAA protests. In their reportage, Kannada television reporters and anchors often asked why Ardra Narayan was staying at a PG (Paying Guest) accommodation and not with her family.

This was also the trend when it came to reporting about Amulya Leona, who had contentiously begun an anti-CAA rally with the slogan of “Pakistan Zindabad”. Kannada media also “floated conspiracy theories”, such as in the case of the anti-CAA play staged by a Muslim-managed school in Bidar. Several TV channels accused the school management of having a “‘plan”.

On TV debates invited guests from Hindutva fringe organisations took this up a notch. Pramod Muthalik of the Sri Rama Sene, for instance, claimed that the Islamic State of Syria was involved in this “conspiracy” against the CAA.

By giving “disproportionate space to fringe right-wing groups”, anchors encouraged “unfounded and inflammatory comments made by political leaders or members of right-wing outfits”. The report asks: “Why do TV channels prioritise a prima-facie communal angle?” It argues that these channels have “abandoned objectivity for hyper-nationalism”. In the instance of three Kashmiri students who were arrested in Hubballi when a video of them—allegedly singing Pakistan Zindabad—circulated on social media and caught the attention of various right-wing groups, a prominent Kannada television anchor urged people in Hubballi to inflict physical violence on the accused by saying: “Cut off their legs if they try to ever set foot on the ground!”

The report also uses examples to show how “fake news and half-truths are spread”. The reportage in the early days of the pandemic was also communalised and “was saturated with hateful slurs such as ‘shaitan’, and ‘Corona criminals’, and provocative terms such as ‘Tablighi virus’ and ‘Corona Jihad’.”

Swathi Shivanand, one of the researchers who authored the report, followed the reporting of several Kannada news channels over many months. She told Frontline that it was “shocking” to see Kannada news channels and their reportage. “I couldn’t believe that this was journalism. With the coverage regarding Muslims, I was genuinely scared because I knew where this was headed.”

Targeting of Muslims

Swathi Shivanand’s apprehension was to come true. As a result of Muslims being blamed for spreading COVID, the community was economically and socially boycotted in several parts of Karnataka. The report lists out several examples of this dangerous consequence. In one egregious instance, a horrible message came up in a village in Ramanagara district of south Karnataka: “Listen everyone! The Gram panchayat village is making this announcement. No Muslims should come into the village. No one should work for Muslims. If you do, you should pay a fine of Rs.500 to Rs.1,000.”

The next chapter looks at examples from history that should serve as a warning of the consequences of hate speech if it is not prevented. It discusses the role that the media played in legitimising and spurring on the genocide in Nazi Germany and in Rwanda. More recent examples of the media’s biased behaviour in India during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat and the communal violence in Delhi in February 2020 are also discussed. “One of the points of comparison between Nazi Germany, Hutu Power Rwanda and the pogroms in India pertains to the question of accountability. While the mechanisms of accountability have been comparatively robust for what happened in both Nazi Germany and Hutu power Rwanda, they have been close to non-existent in the Indian context,” it says.

The last chapter lists useful ways in which citizens can utilise the legal framework to combat hate speech. The report recommends that state and statutory commissions, elected representatives, media houses and civil society organisations should all work together to end hate speech and combat the accompanying violence. While this practical guide of how one could go about filing complaints regarding the media’s role is enlightening, CAHS itself has so far not had much success in its efforts at getting the authorities to monitor the content of TV channels.

Swathi Shivanand said: “I think what’s frustrating with these media monitoring bodies and authorities like the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority is that hate speech has become so extensively normalised that it’s fairly common to stereotype Muslims as a violent community, as a threat to the nation, etc. These aspects have not been addressed by these authorities at all.”

Shivasundar, a Bengaluru-based Kannada journalist and activist who welcomed the report, stated: “Hate speech provides social conditioning necessary for a fascist onslaught by facilitating exclusion of a particular class or community from ‘the universe of moral obligation’. This report tries to expose the compliance of the media and the educated political elite in this sinister ploy and provides plausible ways in which citizenry can confront it.”

The report, released a few days after the third anniversary of Gauri Lankesh’s assassination, was dedicated to the memory of the fearless journalist and is available on the blog of CAHS (

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