The orders last month by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority holding three private news channels guilty of violating journalistic norms in their coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat Covid-19 cluster is a welcome move, even if long overdue. The orders against News18 Kannada, Suvarna News and Times Now are an indication that self-regulation mechanisms can potentially be effective in holding media accountable for biased and hateful speech.
In 2020, when the first wave of Covid-19 gripped the country and people retreated to their homes and TV screens, the unprecedented nature of the pandemic meant that any news regarding the virus and its spread was being hungrily consumed. In this context, when media channels began to focus all their energies on blaming Tablighi Jamaat attendees, and by extension Muslims, on the spread of the virus, the pandemic was given a communal colour.
Reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat incident by TV channels was inflammatory with a number of accusations levelled upon the Muslim community, including being called “super spreaders”, “corona jihad”, “venom of Nizamuddin”, “these devils”, “corona criminals” among others.
The Campaign Against Hate Speech, a volunteer-run initiative, through its complaints brought the inflammatory programmes on the Tablighi Jamaat aired on these three channels to the attention of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority. This is an independent adjudicatory body set up by the News Broadcasters Association, a self-regulatory body consisting of many TV channels as its members. The members are bound by the code of ethics and fundamental principles evolved by the News Broadcasters Association.
What is noteworthy about these complaints by the campaign is its use of the legal category of hate speech within which to understand media reportage. Terming statements made by the anchors, reporters and panellists on these channels as hate speech, the campaign argued that such speech is violative of fundamental principles of objectivity, neutrality and impartiality. By yoking hate speech to the universally accepted norms of journalism, the campaign’s complaints call upon us to view the news through the analytical prism of hate speech.
In its report on hate speech in Kannada media, the campaign has defined hate speech as speech that is a “threat to the very idea of inclusiveness and pluralism – to the endeavour of working and living together”. In other words, this is speech defined by its potential to “target the social sense of assurance on which members of vulnerable communities rely”.
The report argues that hate speech creates an environment that denies individuals the constitutional right to equal citizenship and if allowed to continue unchecked, can lead to social and economic boycott, culminating finally in the “crime of crimes” genocide. It demonstrates vividly also the role of news media in the genocides that took place in both Rwanda and Nazi Germany.
Using this conceptual framework, the Campaign in its complaints cited various instances of social and economic boycott and physical violence faced by Muslims during the first wave.
The News Broadcasting Standards Authority orders in all three cases noted that the programmes complained against had the potential to create “communal dissensions” (Times Now), “had promoted and spread hatred which may have affected people’s lives” (Suvarna News), was “aimed at promoting and inciting hatred between communities” (News18 Kannada).
Notably, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority accepted the campaign’s argument over use of hate speech when it stated that it “tends to agree with the observations of the complainant that hate speech dehumanises an entire community by making them targets of vigilante violence” (Suvarna News).
It also accepted the evidence provided by the Campaign about instances of violence against members of the Muslim community and attributed it to “unobjective and inaccurate reporting”. To give a “communal colour” to broadcasts would be to “corrode the secular fabric of the nation, cause irreparable harm to a community and also stigmatise the community. The damage done is difficult to remedy”, it said in its order on News18 Kannada.
The News Broadcasting Standards Authority’s orders are important for it recognises the key role of hate speech from the media in processes of communalisation of the polity and stigmatisation of targetted communities. It opens up the potential to hold news media accountable for its impact on the constitutional value of fraternity, which is threatened by hate speech.
Without exception, all channels relied on the argument that the programmes fell within their right to freedom of speech and expression. Times Now even went onto argue that this right, detailed under Article 19(1)(a), also comprises the right of the public to know. Their programmes on Tablighi Jamaat were to inform the public of the developments regarding the pandemic. This is not a unique argument, given that there is a section of free speech advocates who argue that hate speech falls within the ambit of free speech and must not be restricted.
The News Broadcasting Standards Authority’s decisions in all three cases relied on semantic evidence and highlighted words used by anchors and reporters alike to concur with the complainant that the programmes lacked “objectivity” and statements made were without “sufficient” evidence. In the case of Suvarna News, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority even went onto term the defence of the right to unrestricted free speech “unacceptable” and stated that this right comes with “reasonable restrictions”.
These findings by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority are crucial to understanding how the right to freedom of speech and expression works in the domain of news media. Objectivity, evidence and the fundamental principles laid down in the code of ethics are central to any information aired by news channels.
A news channel’s right to freedom of speech and expression is not the same as the right accorded to an ordinary individual, whose speech can “offend, shock and disturb” without eliciting restrictions.
Given the media’s central role in a democracy, the right to free speech has to be exercised with responsibility. These responsibilities are detailed in the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards, Specific Guidelines Covering Reportage and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority Regulations. It is the adherence to these valid restrictions that media houses sign up for when they become a member of a self-regulatory body.
The News Broadcasting Standards Authority orders rightfully accepted the arguments of editorial discretion of news channels in choosing to air programmes on whatever issue they deem to be of importance and call panellists they wish to. But it usefully reminded the channels that these discretions have to also be subject to the codes and regulations of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority.
While it accepted that broadcasters cannot be made accountable for statements by invited panellists, it urged channels to ensure that anchors and panellists in news debates are made aware of the requirement that what they say is within speech allowed under the codes and regulations of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority and are not “provocative”. If it advised Times Now to “be careful in choosing its panelists” and to “try to avoid” selecting as panellists those who “are known in the public domain to have extreme and rabid views”, it called on Suvarna News to provide training to its anchors.
Given that contemporary TV news is a combination of visuals, background score, reportage, anchor-led debates and opinions by guests and panellists, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority’s engagement with some of these elements in these orders pave the way for thinking about the various elements of news that have to subscribe to principles of objectivity and evidence and eschew hate speech.
Since the News Broadcasters Association issued its orders Suvarna and News 18 Kannada paid their fines and removed the offending programmes from their YouTube channels.
Certainly, the road to ensuring media accountability is still a long one. But the orders fuel hope that the News Broadcasting Standards Authority as a forum can be approached on matters concerning hate speech and that electronic media’s accountability to the standards they have signed on to including objectivity, neutrality and a commitment not to target any particular community are met. This we hope will slowly usher in a more responsible electronic media, sans sensationalism and hate speech.
Swathi Shivanand is an independent researcher in Bengaluru and volunteers with Campaign Against Hate Speech.