The National Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority on June 13 asked four news channels to remove videos about the alleged “media trial” of activist Umar Khalid, who has been named as one of the accused in the 2020 Delhi violence.

The regulatory body objected to the “sensationalisation of some taglines and tickers” by India TV, Aaj Tak, Zee News and Zee Hindustan.

It issued the order based on a complaint filed by a person called Indrajeet Ghorpade. Most of the programmes mentioned by Ghorpade pertained to panel discussions on news channels over the supplementary charge sheet against Khalid in November 2020.

The case against Khalid pertains to the clashes that broke out between the supporters of the Citizenship Amendment Act and those opposing it between February 23 and February 26, 2020, in North East Delhi. The violence claimed 53 lives and injured hundreds.

The Delhi Police arrested Khalid in September 2020 and charged him under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The police alleged that Khalid had made two speeches that instigated protestors to block roads in the city.

In the 200-paged supplementary charge sheet, the police accused Khalid of “remotely controlling” the riots in Delhi. The former Jawaharlal Nehru University student orchestrated the violence during the visit of United States President Donald Trump’s visit, the police have alleged. The protests aimed to attract international attention and put pressure on the “anti-minority” Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the charge sheet said.

The National Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority held two hearings, on July 16, 2021, and February 4, during which it heard the complainant and the news channels. In its June 13 order, the regulatory authority said that while airing news about the 2020 violence was within the rights of the broadcaster, it called for careful scrutiny of the content.

Complaint against Zee Hindustan

In his complaint, Ghorpade said that Zee Hindustan’s programme aired on November 24, 2020, violated the National Broadcasting Standards Authority’s Code of Ethics while reporting about the supplementary charge sheet filed by the Delhi Police against Khalid.

The code of ethics calls for impartiality, objectivity and neutrality while reporting.

The programme did not present Khalid’s version of the story or include responses of persons who were critical of the way the Delhi Police had led its investigation.

The programme also stated that “It is time to destroy the tukde-tukde gang”, and some of the tickers read, “The country will burn the plot of those who burn Delhi”, “Umar Khalid is the Mastermind of Delhi riots”, “Umar wanted to Burn Delhi?”.

“The broadcaster inaccurately used the term ‘tukde-tukde gang’ to describe Umar Khalid and others who hold liberal views, despite the clarification issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, while responding to an RTI query, that there was no ‘tukde-tukde gang’,” the complaint stated.

“Tukde-tukde gang” is a term coined by the BJP to malign its critics as people working to balkanise India.

Ghorpade claimed that the channel aired the programme titled “Destroy the tukde-tukde gang” as an attempt to call for violence against Khalid, thus putting his life in danger.

Zee Hindustan responded to Ghorpade’s complaint on December 24, 2020, saying that he had raised various “false, frivolous, unsubstantiated and motivated allegations” against the contents of its programme.

The news anchor’s statement that Khalid is “master-mind behind the plot to destroy and burn the country” was based on the charge sheet, the news channel claimed.

Complaint against Zee News

Zee News on November 24, 2020, had run a programme on Khalid titled “Remote controller of Delhi riots”, complainant Ghorpade said.

Inflammatory tickers were run during the show, such as “Umar Khalid plotted the Delhi riots”, “Those called intellectuals are making plans of riots?”.

Besides the headline and the ticker, the anchor made comments like, “We kept saying that Delhi riots were an excuse, the real plan was to destroy the nation”, and “Delhi riots was a plot to make a Muslim-nation?”

During a debate, one of the panelists criticised the anchor for treating the chargesheet as the court’s final verdict.

However, Zee News in a response to the complainant on December 24, 2020, said that it had fairly reported the allegations levelled against Khalid. It denied allegations of a media trial against Khalid. The broadcaster said that it had not formed a conclusive opinion or attributed guilt to Khalid throughout the programme.

Complaint against Aaj Tak

Aaj Tak television channel had run a programme called “Command of the movement (anti-CAA movement) plan for a riot” on November 24, 2020. It was accompanied by pictures of Khalid and co-accused in the case Sharjeel Imam, according to Ghorpade’s complaint.

The show also ran a ticker: “Umar Khalid is a terrorist?”.

The complainant said that the anchor, without referring to the charge sheet, made claims like Khalid had brought protestors to Shaheen Bagh – one of the main sites in Delhi during demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

During the panel discussion, the anchor tried to impose her biased opinion on a panelist, who opposed her point of view, the complaint said. The news channel also muted alternative viewpoints, ran a one-sided debate and portrayed allegations as facts, he added.

Aaj Tak responded to the complaint on December 18, 2020, saying that the programme was aired based on the inputs of credible sources of Special Cell, Delhi Police and the contents of the charge sheets.

It said that the debate was entirely unbiased, and the views of all the panellists were taken into consideration. The channel, however, said that one panellist was muted since he was interfering while others spoke.

Complaint against India TV

India TV on November 25, 2020, aired a programme with the headline, “Who is the mastermind of Delhi riots?” accompanied by pictures of Khalid and Imam.

The title of a YouTube video shared on India TV’s account stated, “How Sharjeel Imam, Umar Khalid plotted violence in Jamia, Shaheen Bagh, Aligarh over the volatile issue”.

The new channel, in its programme, insisted, that it had allegedly unearthed the conspiracy behind the violence.

The show however did not include a response from Khalid, his lawyer or his representatives, the complainant said.

“The complainant submitted that the broadcaster had attempted to portray allegations as facts and charges as an act of guilt through the programme,” Ghorpade said.

India TV submitted a response to the complaint on December 7, 2020, stating there was no violation of the National Broadcasting Standards Authority’s guidelines on part of the channel. The complainant either did not watch the telecast or had misunderstood its contents, the channel added.

The programme did not assert facts or conclusions outside of the charge sheets filed by the police, the channel said.

The news regulator’s take

The National Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority, after hearing the complainant and the broadcasters, said that the media has the freedom to report on any subject matter concerning public interest.

“It is a fact that riots took place in Delhi,” the order said. “It is also a fact that Umar Khalid was arrested by the police and that a charge sheet was filed alleging that he was the mastermind behind these riots. It can also be assumed that these riots would amount to anti-national activities.”

Therefore, airing news about Khalid based on police reports was within the rights of the news channels, the regulatory authority said.

However, the regulatory body questioned the media for treating the police report as “gospel truth” and proceeding with the programmes.

“Obviously, that is not permissible,” it said. “The moment the line is crossed and the message is conveyed that Umar Khalid has been proved guilty or there is sufficient evidence against him to prove him guilty, it would become a media trial which is not permissible in law.”

The body took serious objections to the sensational taglines and tickers aired during the broadcasts and advised the channels to exercise restraint in the future.