On 23 June, News18 Kannada, a part of the media conglomerate Network 18, aired an apology for a section of their coverage, aired in April 2020, which was hateful of the Tablighi Jamaat COVID cluster at Nizamuddin Markaz, New Delhi. This is likely the first ever apology by any media outlet in the country for communal coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), an independent, adjudicatory body set up by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), had on 16 June 2021, ordered the channel to air the apology and pay a fine of Rs One Lakh to the NBA as well. On the same date, the NBSA had also issued two other orders against Suvarna News, a part of Asianet network, and Times Now, a part of the Times Group, for similar segments of hateful coverage related to the Tablighi Jamaat cluster.
The former was asked to pay a fine of Rs.50,000 and the other was issued a ‘censure’.
What’s Campaign Against Hate Speech?
These orders came on the basis of complaints lodged by us at the Campaign Against Hate Speech. The campaign started in February 2020 and consists of lawyers, activists, academics, students and professionals who came together because of increasing concern for how media outlets were portraying anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) dissenters.
As soon as news regarding the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Nizamuddin Markaz broke out, we began documenting the concerted effort of media houses to communalise the pandemic by blaming the attendees, without evidence, for the spread of the virus.
What is Hate Speech?
This is also the typical trajectory of hate speech in that it begins by creating an environment which denies individuals the constitutional right to equal citizenship; and if allowed to continue unchecked, can lead to social and economic boycott. In some cases, it may even lead to loss of lives.
As we note in our report ‘Wages of Hate: Journalism in Dark Times’, the press had a major role to play in fanning hatred that led to genocide and mass violence in the cases of Nazi Germany where six million Jews were killed, in Rwanda where over three million Tutsis were killed and during the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 and Delhi in 2020.
Hate speech cannot be allowed to flourish unchecked, if we are to remain democratic, inclusive and a plural nation.
Why is News Media Our Focus?
During the first wave, hate speech was, of course, everywhere on social media and in news media. While we did file complaints regarding hate speech on social media platforms to cyber complaint cells and did report them on the platforms themselves, we focused our energies on print and television media for two specific reasons.
We believe that when news media transgresses boundaries to echo the majoritarian prejudices that fill our social media timelines and drawing rooms of dominant communities, we have entered dangerous territory.
Hate speech becomes normalised as news and enters public discourse with renewed legitimacy accorded to it by journalism.
If that was one line of thinking for the campaign, the other was as news-consuming publics, we have a right to ethical journalism, and that media – even if owned by corporations and oriented towards profit – are accountable to the public.
We were united in our indignation and anger that hate speech was being passed off as journalism, that communally provocative programmes were being aired as reportage in print and TV news.
What About Freedom of Expression or Free Press?
Do these attempts to hold news media accountable for the content it publishes infringe on their right to freedom of expression? Should hate speech be accommodated within freedom of speech of an individual or entity?
Nowhere in the world, including within the Indian Constitution is the right to free speech absolute and without restrictions.
Article 19 of the Indian Constitution which accords citizens the right to freedom of speech also imposes restrictions on speech on various grounds including that of public order. Public order, as defined by legal scholar Jeremy Waldron, is not simply about ‘keeping the peace’ but also by laws that ‘uphold against attack a shared sense of the basic elements of each person’s status, dignity, and reputation as a citizen or member of society in good standing.’
Understood this way, if an entire community is subject to hostility, discrimination and violence thanks to the hate campaigns led by the media, such speech falls outside the ambit of free speech.
This still leaves us with the question of whether holding media accountable translates to trampling on the freedom of press. To this we say that to demand accountability is not to ask for restrictions.
The field of journalism and its practitioners are bound by normative principles and legal regulations, given the importance of a free press for a well-informed citizenry.
Our work has been simply to hold the media accountable to these ethical principles and laws. This is also the reason we approach statutory and self-regulatory bodies of the media rather than take recourse to criminal law.
The Campaign’s Experience With Media Accountability
From April 2020 onwards, we initiated action against news channels and newspapers for their communal coverage of the pandemic. First, we submitted our complaints against the coverage to editors of offending media houses. None of the editors responded to our complaints.
We then approached the self-regulatory body of the NBSA (for TV channels) and Press Council of India (PCI) for print media. Out of the eight complaints with the NBSA and three have been disposed. The PCI is still hearing our matter in the case of two newspapers.
It is a well-known fact both NBSA and PCI have had a far from impressive track record of holding media accountable. In our case too, none of the agencies we approached responded with the urgency required to restrict the media from breeding hostility by communalising the pandemic.
We also approached the District and State Level Monitoring Committees (DLMCs and SLMC) for Private Channels that were constituted under the Cable Television Networks Act, 1995.
We filed 10 complaints with these committees, received acknowledgement for three and no action has been taken on these complaints. We also filed 12 cyber complaints and only received acknowledgement of our complaints.
In response to the widespread fake news that was circulating during the first wave, we filed one complaint with Fact Check Unit set up by the Karnataka government. We received only an acknowledgment. We also filed three complaints with the Fact Check Unit of the Press Information Bureau. No fact checking was done and the complaints were merely forwarded to the NBSA.
How Effective Our Campaigns Are
Despite what we listed out above, our experience has been that the more closely we engage with regulatory and self-regulatory bodies, the more responsive and accountable they do become.
When we started out last year, well-wishers did share their experience with self-regulatory bodies that they drain energies and are toothless. But a year later, the campaign has been successful in getting three orders from the NBSA against News 18 (Kannada), Suvarna Kannada and Times Now.
We were told the PCI cannot enforce appearance of newspaper editors, but in our complaint before the PCI, the PCI has issued a bailable warrant against an editor for non-appearance in the matter. The PCI, a statutory body, had an allocated budget of Rs 8.5 crores in 2020-21 and Rs Nine crores in 2019-2020. This is public money and makes it all the more necessary for citizens to engage with and strengthen the body.
The acknowledgement by a self-regulatory body (in the three NBSA orders) that coverage by media channels was prejudicial and communal is of great value.
The overwhelming public appreciation of the NBSA orders and the great interest with which the apology aired by News 18 Kannada was followed are reflections of how much the public do want to hold the media accountable, that the communal coverage aired on TV during the first wave had disgusted large sections.
As we see it, there is an urgent need for more collectives like ours across the country, monitoring English and regional news media in print, TV and digital platforms and demanding that accountability from both media houses and regulatory bodies.
Regional media in particular has greater reach and need to be vigorously held accountable.
If we as news-consuming publics let them know we are vigilant and watching them, it is less likely that our polity will become saturated with hate speech. It brings back power in the hands of the news consuming public
(Campaign Against Hate Speech is a group of concerned activists, parents, lawyers and academics working to combat hate speech by sections of media and public personalities and those posted on social media. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.
This article first published by thequint.com