‘We’ve Reached A Stage Where The News Media Have Become A Voice Against The People’ article-14.com

06, Mar 2024 | Akshit Chawla

Activist Indrajeet Ghorpade’s efforts have led to the National Broadcasting Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) imposing fines on two news channels for Islamophobic programs.

Complaints filed by a 32-year-old activist recently resulted in orders from a self-regulatory body to three television news channels to take down their content and for two more to pay fines for “targeting” Indian Muslims. We spoke with Indrajeet Ghorpade, an engineer, who has taken it upon himself to hold the Indian media accountable for misinformation and Islamophobia. He agreed that fines of Rs 100,000 and Rs 50,000 were a slap on the wrists for big media. Still, he said, it was vital these violations be called out and documented.

New Delhi: During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Indrajeet Ghorpade, a 32-year-old information technology engineer and social worker, as he calls himself, watched a lot of news and was shocked by the Islamophobia and misinformation in the pandemic coverage.  

In  2020,  Ghorpade filed his first complaint with the News Broadcasting Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA), which administers the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards for the Delhi and Noida-based News Broadcasters & Digital Association, a collective of 125 news and current affairs channels in India, established in 2007.  The authority consists of a chairperson, who’s an eminent jurist, and eight other members nominated by the board of the association, including four broadcast-media editors. 

Since then, Ghorpade has filed nearly 50 complaints revealing how channels have violated the NBDSA’s code of ethics and guidelines.  

“Racial and religious stereotyping should be avoided,” the guidelines say. “Caution should be exercised in reporting content which denigrates or is likely to offend the sensitivities of any racial or religious group or that may create religious intolerance or disharmony.” 

Some of the news shows Ghorpade filed complaints against included the “media trial” of activist Umar Khalid, calling protesting farmers Khalistanis, and comparing Muslim women protesters to “terrorists”. 

In an interview with Article 14, Ghorpade said that the NBDSA has delivered an order against the news channels in close to 90% of his complaints, issuing warnings, ordering the programmes to be removed from digital platforms, and, in some instances, fining them up to Rs 100,000. 

Last month, Ghorpade had four significant victories.

The complaints he filed led to the NBDSA fining two Hindi channels, Times Now Navbharat and News18 India, Rs 100,000 and Rs 50,000, respectively, for using the word “love jihad” in the context of the Shraddha Walker murder case. Walker’s live-in partner, a Muslim, was charged with murdering her. They were also ordered to remove their programmes from digital platforms. 

A third channel, Aaj Tak, was criticised for not following proper guidelines while reporting on religious matters and ordered to remove from its digital platforms the programme on the communal violence that erupted in Bihar during Ram Navami in March 2023.  “The incidents of communal violence committed by a few miscreants had been generalised by the anchor to target a particular community,” the order said. 

In response to his complaint against India Today, the NBDSA found that the channel had used visuals that were “totally out of context” in a programme about the LGBTQIA+ community. The channel was told to either edit and remove the objectionable parts from the video or remove the entire video from its digital media platforms. The NBDSA issued guidelines for reporting on the LGBTQIA community “in order to take care of the sensitivity of the issue and bring objectivity while broadcasting such issues”.

When we asked what drove him to do this work, Ghorpade said, “I myself am a part of a discriminated and historically persecuted group. I’m a queer person. So, that makes me feel strongly when another community around me is being targeted and being subjected to a similar treatment.” 

Referring to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, a premier institution vilified after some of its students were critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, Ghorpade said, “There are people around me who might otherwise seem as reasonable and rational folks, but they have also started believing that JNU is a hot-spot for anti-national people and things like that, which were promoted by television news, day-in and day-out.” 

Ghorpade, who has no additional monetary support for his activism, drafts the submissions himself, attends online hearings, argues with lawyers hired by large news corporations, and publicises the orders passed.

“Remaining silent was very claustrophobic, and it wasn’t a good space for me,” he said. “So, I wanted to do something about it and found this as a medium to do it.”

In a survey conducted in 2022 by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 70% of respondents said they got the news from television, 48% from newspapers and about 37% from digital media.

The World Press Freedom Index ranked India 140 out of 180 countries in 2014. This number dropped to 161 in 2023, behind Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Libya. The report said that “mainstream media are now owned by wealthy businessmen close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi” while critical journalists face “horrific harassment campaigns”. 

In December 2020, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), a communications regulator in the United Kingdom, fined the Hindi news channel Republic Bharat £ 20,000 (Rs 21 lakh) “for promoting and justifying hatred towards Pakistani people”. 

In February 2023, the NBDSA fined News18 India Rs 50,000 for the programme titled—Won’t let the country bow down: Grand Alliance against Hindus—based on a complaint filed by Citizens for Justice & Peace, a Mumbai-based organisation. The same channel was fined Rs 50,000 in October 2022 for the “extreme views” expressed by panellists in a debate on the hijab ban in Karnataka. 

The fine amounts of Rs 1 lakh and Rs 50,000 for Times Now Navbharat and News18 India were widely regarded as meagre for such large media companies. 

The NBDSA regulations say the authority can impose a maximum fine of Rs 1 lakh. 

Last year, the Supreme Court said fines imposed by the NBDSA “must be of proportion to profits you make from that show” for it to be an “effective” self-regulatory mechanism. 

Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said, “What are the fines that you impose? How much does the TV channel make from an advertisement in one program? No TV channel has any motivation to comply with your self-regulatory mechanism, and if at the end of a violation, you are going to impose a penalty of a lakh of rupees, there you have it.”

Ghorpade agreed that the fine amounts were small but said it was vital for the news channels to be called out. 

“I think the larger benefit is that the violations are being recorded in the public space,” he said. “It’s documented that we stood against this and that this news show was violating guidelines, and it was ordered to be taken down.”

Why is it important for you to flag television news channels spreading false or incomplete information?  

We all studied and grew up thinking that the media is supposed to be the voice of the citizens. We reached a stage where the media was often criticised for being the voice of the government. But now we’ve reached a stage where it has become a voice against the people. That’s very disturbing for me. When I watch these shows, I feel angry, scared, and very uncomfortable, and I can only try to imagine what the Muslim community in the country feels like—seeing things on prime-time shows that vilify and demonise them. Filing these cases with the NBDSA was also a medium for me to register my rage against the status quo because I didn’t want to remain silent.

How much news do you watch? 

If I come across a television news show which I find is atrocious, then I immediately file a case against it. I don’t set out a separate time to watch television news. I don’t actively sit and scan the television to see ‘if I’ll find something interesting today’. If someone does something completely atrocious, you’ll see it on Twitter or you’ll see it on Newslaundary’s Newsance (a YouTube show), or you’ll have people talking about it. In such cases, I’ll flag it. Regarding television coverage of queer issues, I’m connected to a bunch of other community members, leaders, and vigilant citizens, who may flag such news to me, and then I take up those cases.

How can individuals file a case against television news channels with the NBDSA?

The NBDSA has a set of regulations, and you have to carry out the process accordingly. Within seven days from the date of the broadcast, you have to send an email to the news channel informing them of your grievance. Their email IDs are listed on NBDSA’s website.

Then, the channel is expected to get back to you within seven days. Quite often, they don’t get back in time, and you’ve to do email follow-ups. After one or two emails, they finally get back to you with their justification. In my experience, it has never happened that the channel has acknowledged by saying, ‘Yes, we made a mistake, and we will correct this’. Then, if you’re not satisfied with their response or do not receive a response, you have to file a case with the NBDSA. You can email them at [email protected] or fill out this online complaint form.

Here, you’ve to mention the name of the show, the date of the show, the exact timestamps of violations, why you think whatever was said is a violation, and the types of violations that have occurred—whether it was hate speech or fake news or something else. You must link it to the guidelines and the code of ethics of NBDSA. You also have to inform them why you’re unsatisfied with the response of the channel. After that, the NBDSA will decide whether to admit your case or not.

Then, after three to seven months, they will call for an online hearing and during the hearing, you’re supposed to present your side of the argument—just like it happens in some legal bodies and courtrooms. So, you present your side. The channel presents its side. Then, they send the final order in one to three months.

The news channels will always have some defence. Sometimes, I feel bad for their legal teams because they have to defend things that are obvious violations. And it’s almost pitiful to watch them defend those things in front of that board, but it is a choice they’ve made.

During the hearing, you get around 10 minutes to talk. I usually talk about everything that is not already covered in the complaint. So, I usually use that time to set the larger context. My complaints are usually very structured and precise. I stick to what the violation was and what rule was violated. So, I utilise those 10 minutes to talk about the larger repercussions of these programmes and the larger context behind them.

Of the three recent orders —two were about ‘love jihad’, and one was about stone pelting. These board members are well-read people. I’m sure they’re aware of the social context, but I had to utilise my time to talk in greater depth about how ‘love jihad’ is used as a term by the political class these days to spread fear against Muslim men in society, and how it is baseless and unfounded. One of the panellists on Times Now Navbharat was calling it an ‘organised crime’ against Hindu women. The NBDSA’s guidelines ask broadcasters to avoid inviting individuals “espousing rabid/fanatic views/opinions”.  Also, when the channels argue that the anchor was not responsible for what the panellists said,  I let them know that the panellists were repeat offenders, and despite that, the channel kept calling them back to their debates.

Are you happy with the outcome and the fine amount of Rs 1 lakh and Rs 50,000 imposed on Times Now Navbharat and News18 India, respectively, for their programmes using the word “love jihad” in the context of the Shraddha Walker murder case? 

I’m happy about the fact that the body is calling violations as violations. They are actually looking into the case. They are trying to understand the larger context. In their decisions, I feel their assessments of the violations are accurate. The board does not have the power to levy fines over Rs 1 lakh. So, in that sense, I am dissatisfied with the self-regulatory body but not with the board members because they haven’t decided to put a cap of Rs 1 lakh.

Rarely a monetary fine is imposed. More often, it is the removal of content. The channel will be given a warning, sometimes in a stronger word. Then, they’ll ask the channel to take down the video from online sources, which is not very helpful because seven or eight months have passed. It already has the kind of views that that programme had to get. The purpose of that channel is satisfied. They don’t really care if they have to delete something after eight months. But I think the larger benefit is that the violations are being recorded in the public space. It’s documented that we stood against this and that this news show was violating guidelines, and it was ordered to be taken down.

If you see the recent cases, at least there’s some chatter about it on social media platforms and digital spaces. Now everybody knows how the news media is. I think some of these cases just help with documentation.

Even after strict orders and fines, the channels keep repeating their violations. What are your thoughts on that? 

I had filed a case against the baseless allegations that were being levelled against protesting farmers (in the 2020-2021 farmers’ protest) on the grounds of inaccuracy, misinformation, and fake news. Media channels were linking them with Khalistani supporters and saying that they had infiltrated the protest baselessly, and they were also using footage of different protests or festivals from Germany and other locations. Similar things are happening again (in news coverage of the 2024 farmers’ protest). So, this will continue to happen, and that’s why we need to stay vigilant and keep pressing as much as we can from our side to put a break on it.

What are the challenges that you face?

There are many news organisations that are not a part of the NBDSA. This includes Republic TV and Sudarshan TV, which are far worse than the others.

They have chosen not to be a part of the NBDSA, and they’ve formed their own body—the News Broadcasters Federation. Their duties are the same as NBDSA. I filed two cases after it was formed, but I never got any hearing. I just got an acknowledgement email in the beginning. They haven’t passed any orders as far as I know.

In the past, we have seen that some channels that are members of the NBDSA and are dissatisfied with its stance have the easy option of just stopping their membership.  (In 2022,  for instance, TV9 Network quit the NBDA over disagreement on its stance on television ratings.)

These channels are then by themselves, or they become part of bodies like the News Broadcasters Federation, which is non-functional. Then, people are only left with the option of either filing cases with the ministry of information and broadcasting or with the courts. I’ve done both in certain cases where the channel wasn’t a part of NBDSA.

I’ve gone to the ministry of information and broadcasting. They take their own sweet time. They never get back to you. I had to keep calling them for almost over a year. I had to keep calling their secretary and keep asking for updates. I wouldn’t get any updates at all. Then, finally, I filed a case in the Delhi High Court with the help of a lawyer who worked on this case pro bono. A Marathi news channel had interviewed a naturopath who was promoting conversion therapy, saying that you can make gay people straight by giving them this medicine.

The Delhi High Court ordered the ministry to grant me a hearing and formed a committee for that. Then they gave a judgement saying that this was a violation and the channel needed to air a clarification on-air.

It took a lot of effort. I had to go all the way to the High Court. I’m at least happy that NBDSA exists. Even though it’s delayed a little, they do hold hearings, and they do pass orders that are reasonable. Despite their orders not being effective, I’m just glad that it is a means for me and others like me to document all the crimes committed by these channels. There’s no entity that has the power apart from the courts to do anything against these media channels.

Why not move the courts?

Because I don’t have the time and resources to move courts everytime I see a violation. Filing cases with the NBDSA works for me. It does not cost me any money, and I can do that from the comfort of my house. I cannot say the same thing for filing court cases.

What more can be done to increase the accountability of news channels?

Maybe it would be helpful if the powers of the NBDSA were enhanced. If they had the power to order channels to issue on-air public apologies and clarifications, that would have been super helpful. Imagine Sudhir Chaudhary having to say, ‘What I said in the show was wrong. ‘ Earlier, they had this power. Now, they have been stripped of that power. Now, restoring this power will be helpful.

Increasing the fine limit and saying that whatever money is made out of a program has to be submitted as a fine could be one thing. They get millions of views on YouTube and may have sponsors as well. So, maybe returning that money could be one way. Having more representation from the social space and civil societies might be helpful. So, there is some power imbalance there.

For example, when I take up these queer LGBTQ+ cases, many people don’t have a good understanding of this. They don’t view these violations with the same severity with which they view anti-Muslim or anti-farmer violations.

What do you think is the role of the news media in today’s society? 

I feel its job is to highlight the problems that the public is facing, which we rarely see. If people are themselves coming out on the streets and trying to highlight the problems they are facing, then the media will come and demonise them, calling them ‘andolan jeevis’ (protesting creatures) and whatnot.

We saw the media play a brilliant role during the anti-corruption movement and during the women’s safety movement following the Nirbhaya incident. So, that is supposed to be the primary response of the media. If it did its job well, there would have been a larger check on any ruling government in different states or the centre, but that is completely absent.

Do you have tips for someone who wants to pursue such cases?

What has worked out for me is just mentioning what was said on the show and mentioning the guidelines or the code of ethics of the NBDSA that were violated. In rare cases, I’ve had to go to the extra length of setting up a larger context.

(Akshit Chawla is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)

The original piece may be read here:


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