The News Broadcasting Standards Authority has fined two Kannada news channels and censured English television news channel Times Now for their biased coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation of March 2020, Bar and Bench reported on Thursday. The authority fined News18 Kannada Rs 1 lakh and Suvarna News Rs 50,000.

The NBSA’s action was based on a complaint filed in 2020 by Bengaluru organisation Campaign Against Hate Speech, reported The News Minute. The news channels have to pay the penalty within seven days of receiving the order, which was issued on Wednesday.

The Tablighi Jamaat congregation that took place at the Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi was blamed for thousands of coronavirus infections around the country in the initial weeks of the nationwide lockdown, which began on March 25, 2020. The event had renewed stigma against Muslims, triggering a wave of business boycotts and hate speech.

The NBSA pointed to two programmes aired on News18 Kannada, and said those had highly objectionable content that was based on conjecture. The programmes singled out by the NBSA were “Do you know how is Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz which has spread Coronavirus to the nation” and “How many have gone to Delhi’s Jamaat Congregation from Karnataka”. Both were aired on April 1, 2020.

“The tone, tenor and language [of the programmes] was crass, prejudiced and disrespectful,” the NBSA said in its order. “The programmes were prejudiced, inflammatory, and crossed all boundaries of good taste without concerns for feelings of a religious group. It was aimed at promoting and inciting hatred between communities.”

The NBSA has also asked News18 Kannada to telecast an apology on June 23 before the 9 pm news.

In the case of Suvarna News, the broadcasting authority objected to six programmes aired between March 31, 2020, and April 4, 2020. “The titles of the programmes had an insidious effect which could incite communal violence,” said the NBSA.

With regard to Times Now, the NBSA said the anchor of the programme titled “Is Tablighi Jamaat wilfully sabotaging India?” used objectionable words that did not match with the visuals aired by the channel. “The manner, tenor and words used by the anchor could have been avoided,” it said. The programme was aired on April 2, 2020. Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Narendra Taneja was among the panellists at the show.

The Tablighi Jamaat congregation

The Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni Muslim sect with followers in over 80 countries.

After the congregation, the Centre in June blacklisted over 2,500 Tablighi members and prohibited their entry into the country for 10 years. The action was taken after several state governments submitted information on those who had been accused of illegally living in mosques and seminaries.

Several cases were filed against people who attended the congregation for reasons such as allegedly disobeying the government’s Covid-19 guidelines or violating the conditions of their visa. But courts have quashed most of the FIRs and acquitted the members. The Bombay High Court noted in August that foreign nationals had been made scapegoats.

The Supreme Court also criticised the media coverage of the matter, and pulled up the government for not placing curbs on television programmes.