I set out on a career in journalism nearly fifty years ago. The first thing I was taught was the definition of news. “If a dog bites a man, it is not news. If a man bites a dog, it is.” A normal event was not news; an abnormal event was. Rainfall was not news, but flooding was. Planes flying was not news, but a plane falling was.
The second thing I was taught was the definition of journalist. A journalist has to be accurate and impartial. Every bit of information they give must be supported by evidence. Every bit of information they give must be free from any influence of personal feelings, prejudices or ideological leanings. Accuracy and impartiality are the two most sacred norms a journalist has to follow to deserve respect as a journalist. They are the twin pillars on which rested the edifice of their credibility.
The definitions of news and journalist were contrasting. While an event had to breach norms to be news, its bringer had to obey norms to be a journalist. While the news was abnormal, the journalist had to be normal.
Twin pillars of accuracy and impartiality collapsed
Today, when I look at primetime news television, I feel like I am walking through the smouldering ruins of journalism. The twin pillars of accuracy and impartiality have collapsed, pulling down the edifice of credibility. The journalist is no longer normal. Much like news, they too have become abnormal.
'Jahangirpuri ka badla...'
On April 22 last year, Aman Chopra, the News18 primetime anchor conducted a show called ‘Jahangirpuri ka badla, Mahadev par hamla’ depicting the demolition of a Shiva temple at Rajgarh, Alwar, Rajasthan in an anti-encroachment drive as an ‘act of revenge’ by the Gehlot government for the demolition of encroachments by Muslims at Jahangirpuri, Delhi.
Chopra’s show was lacking in both accuracy and impartiality. The temple was demolished three days before demolitions took place at Jahangirpuri. How could it be a revenge for demolitions at Jahangirpuri? Moreover, the demolition at Rajgarh was ordered by the BJP-dominated municipal council. The Gehlot government had nothing to do with it. How could it be an ‘act of revenge’ by the Gehlot government?
In September 2020 Suresh Chavhanke, the Sudarshan TV anchor presented a show called ‘UPSC Jihad’, claiming to expose a ‘conspiracy by Muslims to infiltrate’ the central civil services. Chavhanke gave an indecent burial to accuracy and impartiality in his show. He claimed Muslims were allowed nine attempts to clear examinations and Hindus only six. The fact was that the general category got six attempts and the OBC category nine attempts and both categories included Hindus and Muslims. But Chavhanke presented nine attempts allowed to OBC Muslims as a special privilege to Muslims in general, whereas even OBC Hindus enjoyed that privilege. He also falsely claimed that Muslims enjoyed higher age limit and lower qualifying marks.
How do anchors get away with such open murder of journalism?
How do anchors get away with such open murder of journalism? Is there nobody to stop them from appearing evening after evening in TV studios to sell their products of hate made from the ashes of truth? Why does the country appear helpless to shut down the daily hate bazaar on our TV screens?
Five authorities who can do it
There are five authorities who can do it. Let us see what they are doing. The first is the employers of the anchors. Do you think anchors can do what they like and their employers can do nothing but watch? There is an obvious complicity here. The rise of Narendra Modi has been accompanied by a rise in Hinduphilia and Islamophobia. The broadcasters see a big market for the kind of programmes their anchors are hosting. These programmes draw the highest viewership on their channels. High viewership means high revenue from advertisements.
The second is the broadcasters’ trade body called News Broadcasting and Digital Association (NBDA). The NBDA has a ‘code of ethics’ saying broadcasters must “conform to the highest standards of rectitude and journalistic ethics”. Article 4 of the code says, “News shall not be selected or designed to promote any particular belief, opinion or desires of any interest group.” All that, you can see, is on paper. The broadcasters have locked away the code in a corner of their safe and forgotten about it.
The third is the government. It has the IPC. Section 153A disallows promotion of enmity between different groups. Section 295A prohibits deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. The government has the Cable Television Network Rules (CTNR). Rule 6 of CTNR lays down a Programme Code which disallows any programme containing an “attack on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes.” The government has a special unit called Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC) to monitor 24x7 if the broadcasters are adhering to or violating the Programme Code. Why do you think the government is not enforcing its own laws and rules to shut down the grossly illegal TV hate bazaar? Because, much as the broadcasters have discovered a commercial market in it, the Modi regime has found a political market in it.
The fourth is the self-regulatory body of the broadcasters called the News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) headed by the retired Supreme Court judge, Justice AK Sikri. The NBDSA is the only ray of hope. It has given several orders censuring anchors and broadcasters. It has recently started imposing fines. Fines of Rs 50,000 and Rs 25,000 were imposed on News18 Media for two hateful and inflammatory shows hosted by their anchor Aman Chopra.
The fifth is the judiciary. A Supreme Court bench intervened to stop Sudarshan TV broadcasting more episodes of ‘UPSC Jihad’ when the Modi regime showed reluctance to do it. Another SC bench, which is hearing a clutch of petitions seeking a curb on hate speech, wondered, “Why cannot a TV news anchor, if they become a part of the problem of propagating hate speech, be taken off air? …If action is taken against the news anchor or their management, all will fall in line.” All eyes are now on the NBDSA. Will Justice Sikri go beyond censure and fine to order hate-mongering anchors to be taken off air? That could probably shut down the hate bazaar.
Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and author
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