While the Delhi government’s complaint against Zee News, NewsX, and India News for airing allegedly doctored footage of the February 9 event at JNU is of a piece with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s crusade against ‘biased’ television channels, it is also a disturbing indicator of the precarious state of self-regulation of news broadcasting in India.
The News Broadcasters Standards Authority (NBSA), that could have taken action to rein in television channels for their sordid coverage of the JNU incidents was, quite simply, missing in action. And since their website lists only complaints that have been decided, there is no way of knowing whether they have taken up the cases of allegedly doctored videos.
In February, the NBSA chair, Justice R. V. Raveendran was quoted in The Hindu as saying that ‘its members would look into it and take action if necessary’. Attempts to find out from the NBSA if any action had indeed been taken, came to nought. Nor was there any information about action taken, if any, on the website of the News Broadcasting Authority (NBA) under which the NBSA functions. The authority’s spokesperson simply said whatever it wanted to put in the public domain had been put on the website. If complaints have been filed with the Authority in this regard, the site does not record them.
The Delhi government’s complaint filled in the gap and was hailed on social media (even former AAP leader Prashant Bhushan tweeted his support) because of the public disgust at the role played by some television channels in fuelling public sentiments over the JNU issue.
There are Facebook pages seeking a boycott of Times Now and support for film-maker Gauhar Raza and academic Nivedita Menon against the propaganda of Zee News and IBN7 that they were ‘anti-national’ and should be booked for ‘sedition’.
The AAP government, which had attacked television channels for indulging in ‘paid news’ in the run up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, has naturally been taking a proactive role in the entire issue. In February, it conducted an investigation into the videos, following a request by CPM leader Sitaram Yechury and CPI leader D. Raja.
A report found that two of the seven video clips sent for forensic examination had been doctored. The Delhi government sent legal notices to the television channels and then decided to file a complaint against the three mentioned earlier.
According to the counsel for the Delhi government, N. Hariharan, the three channels “knowingly and with malicious intent caused damage to JNU students and the university, and disrupted communal harmony and security in Delhi” by broadcasting a forged and fabricated video, thereby inviting prosecution under sections 465 (punishment for forgery) and 471 (using as genuine a forged document or electronic record). The case is scheduled to come up for hearing before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Delhi, on May 26.
The Delhi government’s complaint has named 12 respondents (including editors, managing directors and directors) from Zee News, Zee News Media Corporation, NewsX, Information TV Pvt Ltd and India News. An FIR lodged with the Vasant Kunj police station in Delhi against JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar for sedition clearly mentioned that footage obtained from Zee News had been requisitioned by the police.
For the Delhi government, the issue is clear: it will take action if the law was violated and if the allegedly doctored reports led to violence.
But what is inexplicable is the deafening silence of the NBSA in all this. It is a body of the top 23 news broadcasters (comprising 57 news and current affairs channels) in the country, and proclaims that it stands for self-regulation and monitoring by a ‘jury of its peers’.
In the past, it has taken suo moto action on several issues. In 2009 for instance, it acted against India TV for passing off a Reuters ‘interview’ with analyst Farhana Ali as its own. In 2010, it took action against NewsX for telecasting an incorrect report on the death of a person in firing in Srinagar and again, in 2011, it took action on a series of programmes, including a controversial one by TV 9 entitled ‘Gay Culture Rampant In Hyderabad’, and a Times Now programme on DMK leader Kanimozhi.
Perhaps the good folk at the NBSA are exhausted? Perhaps they are simply grappling with that Herculean task without which the core principles of self-regulation are meaningless - that of getting broadcasters to adhere to the guidelines adopted by the NBA and to enforce decisions by that ‘jury of peers’?
Indeed, if one went only by the last order of the NBSA, the task before it in the face of recalcitrant television channels is daunting indeed.
On January 11, 2016, the NBSA came down quite heavily on Times Now for a complaint against a biased and aggressive interview of Delhi resident Sarabjit Singh, accused of passing sexist remarks against an AAP member Jasleen Kaur.
The complaint was over the manner in which the channel’s reporter harangued Singh while interviewing him, accusing him of arrogance and misbehaviour and demanding that he apologise. The interview taglines included ‘Named and Shamed but still defiant’ and ‘Delhi pervert apologetic’ which amounted to a media trial, the complaint said.
In its order, the NBSA directed Times Now to air an expression of regret prominently before its 9 p.m. Newshour show on March 24, 2016. The channel was directed to broadcast a static text on a full screen to run at slow speed to state:
We regret that while reporting the interview of Mr. Sarabjit Singh, who is accused of eve-teasing by Ms. Jasleen Kaur, on 24.8.2015, we had failed to comply with the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards of NBA requiring broadcasters to maintain neutrality, impartiality, accuracy and fairness, and also failed to follow the specific guidelines of NBSA relating to reportage of matters under investigation.
The order makes for interesting reading. It says: ‘In their anxiety to ensure that the wrongdoer does not escape prosecution and punishment, the broadcasters make all out efforts to generate public opinion to ensure that there is no let-go either in the investigation or prosecution or the trial, and the guilty is punished. This unfortunately has evolved into 'media trials' when the media turns into the vigilante mode’.
On February 17, 2016, a little more than a month after the NBSA order was passed, Times Now went on prime time to ‘debate’ the JNU issue and, in the process, aired the controversial video when BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra displayed the doctored video on his iPad while the channel host Arnab Goswami repeatedly asked the camera to zoom in on the device. And we all know how that broadcast went.
But for inexplicable reasons, the Delhi government’s complaint has not been leveled at Times Now even though it played a controversial role in telecasting the video.
How many times will the NBSA need to act against a vigilante media? Obviously, as many times as necessary. And, if it seeks to make self-regulation work, it needs to act swiftly.
Geeta Seshu is an independent journalist and Consulting Editor of The Hoot. She is based in Mumbai.