COVID, Communal Reporting and Centre's Attempt to Use Independent Media as Alibi for Inaction

Contrary to what the I&B Ministry told the Supreme Court, many if not most media houses acted irresponsibly on the Tablighi Jamaat issue and openly communalised a health crisis.

Mumbai: On November 17, the Ministry of Information and Broadcast submitted a rather unusual affidavit to the Supreme Court. In response to a petition filed by the Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind and others – which sought action against the communal manner in which many media outlets, particularly on TV, had reported the COVID-19 outbreak following the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in the National Capital – the I&B ministry claimed that the media in India had by far provided a “balanced and neutral perspective”. Hence, it argued, there was no need for the court or the government to act against any channels.

What was particularly surprising was the ‘evidence’ the ministry chose to present before the court to build its case.

The ministry favourably cited the coverage by a few media houses like The Indian Express, The Wire, and ThePrint, etc. to claim that the press in India has acted responsibly in covering news related to the Tablighi Jamaat.

Political leaders like Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy and Sharad Pawar were also invoked in the affidavit to show political efforts made to prevent communalisation of the virus. None of this was factually incorrect. But by highlighting the work done by one section of the press. the I&B ministry deliberately ignored the biased and openly bigoted coverage by several news outlets, particularly by pro-regime TV channels in Hindi, English and regional languages. The ministry also remained silent over the role played by BJP ministers and party leaders in fanning communal sentiments across the country at that time.  

Also read: The Coronavirus Spread and the Criminal Liability of the Tablighi Jamaat

The I&B ministry’s attempt to gloss over the TV media’s role in communally portraying the Tablighi Jamaat congregation did not go down well with the Supreme Court. The bench, headed by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde, expressed its displeasure, prompting the Centre to offer to file a fresh affidavit. The matter is scheduled to be heard again after three weeks. The court has suggested that the government consider setting up a regulatory mechanism under the Cable Television Network Act to deal with such content on news channels.

TJ- Media Reporting- Union Affidavit by The Wire on Scribd

How ‘balanced’ was the reporting?

The month of March was particularly tumultuous for people in India on several counts. The coronavirus had just begun spreading across the country and the Narendra Modi-led government had suddenly imposed a national lockdown. The decision, which was announced four hours before implementation, left many in the lurch. Thousands of Tablighi Jamaat visitors – both local and international – too were stranded in different parts of the country.

At a time like this, several issues pertaining to the impact of lockdown and the preparedness of the government in tackling the situation presented themselves for journalists. Instead of focusing on these, several right-leaning media outlets like Zee News, Republic TV, Times Now and media houses like Amar Ujala and news agency ANI launched a tirade against the Muslim community, using the Jamaat as a proxy. In no uncertain terms, their coverage blamed the Tablighis for causing a spike in the number of cases in the country.

While Times Now called it “Markaz mayhem,” Zee News editor Sudhir Chaudhary blamed the “dushit soch (corrupt thoughts)” of Tablighi Jamaat members for the rise in cases. Chaudhary further blamed their “religious belief” for putting the entire country in a “state of crisis”.

A Zee News report on the Tablighi Jamaat that was refuted by the Arunachal government. Photo: Twitter/@ArunachalDIPR

In April, when sentiments were still high and anti-Muslim fears were being stoked, Amar Ujala carried a news story claiming that Tablighi Jamaat members who were quarantined in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh had misbehaved with hospital staff.

“…When they (Jamaat members) did not get non-vegetarian food, the Jamaatis here threw away the food and defecated in the open,” Amar Ujala report claimed. This report was widely shared and led to a frenzy on social media. However, the Saharanpur police later issued a statement calling the report “wrong and untrue”. The police also condemned the press report.

Starting from last week of March and continuing to well into April, Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami delivered a high-decibel monologue against the Tablighi Jamaat nearly every evening, at prime time. Almost all of these hour-long segments conveyed one-sided opinion with very little to no ground reports to support the claims made.

A screengrab of a Republic TV prime time show on the Tablighi Jamaat.

In one episode, Goswami had asked, “How can one group put everyone at risk?” and further claimed that the Tablighi Jamaat organisers had schemed to “defeat the efforts made by Narendra Modi’s government” to contain the spread of the disease. He emphasised that it was the “Islamic congregation” and “Muslim clerics” from different countries who had conspired to spread the virus in the country.

Several regional media houses too joined in,  promoting hate speech. Down south, a section of the Kannada media engaged in communally charged reporting, branding the coronavirus a ‘Tablighi virus’.

Similar to Hindi media, in most Kannada news too, the coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat cluster was saturated with hateful slurs like ‘shaitan’, and ‘corona criminals’, and provocative terms such as ‘corona jihad’. This singling out and targeting of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Muslim community continued until well into June. Only after Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide did the focus move to the actor’s death and the political drama surrounding it.

An exhaustive study, titled ‘The Wages of Hate: Journalism in Dark Times’ has found that the Kannada media houses had not just falsely reported on the incident but attempted to stoke communal sentiments with the constant use of graphics and dramatic language, and by playing politicians’ communal statements on the loop.

The report stated:

“The Tablighi Jamaat phase saw hate speech directed against one entire community-Muslims-with very visible impact on the ground such as calls for economic and social boycott and physical violence against Muslims. Hate speech in this period was in some instances clear incitement to genocide and sought to reduce Muslims to second class citizenship.”

This report was based on a close content analysis of the news channels. The report, in fact, supports the petition filed by the Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind in the Supreme Court. The I&B ministry, however, has accused the petitioner of “selectively picking up a few articles to create an impression that the media had communalised the issue”.

On the other hand, none of these TV debates or reports were backed with evidence. They were manufactured in TV studios and fed to viewers far and wide.

Not just media

Both the Union Home Ministry and the Health Ministry have continued to blame the congregation for the spread of COVID-19. As recent as September 21, Minister of State (Home Affairs) G. Kishan Reddy, in his response to a question in the parliament, said, “As reported by Delhi Police, despite guidelines/orders issued by various authorities in pursuance of the outbreak of COVID-19 a huge gathering assembled inside a closed premise; over a protracted period of time, without any semblance of social distancing or provision of masks and sanitizers. This also caused spread of Corona Virus infection amongst many persons (sic).”

Similarly, in April, defying its own guidelines, Lav Agarwal, joint secretary of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) attributed specific “role” to the Jamaat, claiming that of the 14,378 positive COVID-19 cases countrywide (as on April 19), 4,291 of them were linked to its congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area.

This community specific briefing violates the ministry’s April 8 guidelines, which say, “Do not label any community or area for spread of COVID-19.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) too has been warning governments and the media across the world not to stigmatise any section of the population. “Stigma occurs when people negatively associate an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, with a specific population,” it said in an advisory, adding that stigmatisation, “means that people are being labelled, stereotyped, separated, and/or experience loss of status and discrimination because of a potential negative affiliation with the disease.”

File photo of Tablighi Jamaat members. Photo: PTI

However, several political leaders too participated in spreading communal hatred.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath issued a statement “condemning the role” of Tablighi Jamaat in the spread of COVID-19 virus.

After quarantined Jamaat members were accused to have flouted norms and harassed nurses in Ghaziabad, Adityanath addressed the media on the matter, and said, “These people will neither follow the law nor accept government orders. What they have done against female health workers is a serious crime. We are charging them under NSA. We will not let them go them easily.” Notable was the chief minister’s generalising tone.

In an interview with Kannada news channel Suvarna TV, BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje had claimed that the Tablighi Jamaat attendees were involved in ‘corona jihad’. In another media statement, BJP MP Anant Kumar Hegde compared the rapid and fatal spread of COVID-19 with Islam. These accusations were carried as ‘news reports’ and no attempt was made to counter the accusations in said reports.

Screenshot of a show on Suvarna News where COVID-19 is termed ‘Tablighi Virus’.

“Keep one thing in mind. I am telling everyone openly. There is no need to buy vegetables from ‘miyans’ [Muslims],” legislator Suresh Tiwari from Deoria town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh was heard saying in a mobile phone video that went viral in April. This video was run on a loop on several news and YouTube channels without any critical take on it.

The government, however, has claimed before the Supreme Court that instances of communal tension were just a few and far between.

India’s communal faultlines, further stressed by deadly riots in New Delhi in February over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that excludes Muslims, were split wide open by the allegations against the Jamaat. The communalisation of daily news, laced with equally baseless statements made by BJP and its allied parties’ leaders had pushed the law enforcement agencies to book Tablighi Jamaat members en masse. In almost all states, both local and international visitors were booked under a range of sections for “spreading” the virus. In some states, like in Maharashtra, the Jamaat members were also booked under non-bailable sections like “attempt to murder”.

Watch | From Super Spreaders To Super Saviours: Tablighi Jamaat Members Donate Plasma

Along with religious polarisation, this divisive reportage also led to bloody attacks on Muslims in different parts of the country. In northwest Delhi, a 22-year-old Muslim youth, Mehmoob Ali, was thrashed after some people accused him of spreading the virus.

Similarly, in September, four Tablighi Jamaat members were assaulted in Maharashtra’s Beed district. Suhail Tamboli, Aslam Ather, Sayyed Layak and Nizamuddin Qazi, were travelling to Ambajogai village from Dharur when a group of six allegedly attacked the travellers and their already broken-down car in Hol village. Tamboli was beaten unconscious and had told media then that the assailants had intended to kill him and his friends. They were ruthlessly beaten and verbally abused for 40 minutes late in the night, Tamboli had claimed.

Besides these violent attacks, in many places, Muslim vendors have been blocked from selling food, and beaten up often. A cancer hospital in Meerut had refused to admit Muslims unless they underwent a coronavirus test. Later, as media pressure was mounted, the hospital tendered an apology. In another incident, many volunteers belonging to Muslim community were attacked with cricket bats in Bengaluru when they were out distributing food to the needy.

Tamil Nadu went a step ahead and appears to have been the first government to even set up a detention centre for 129 foreign nationals who had visited different parts of the state after their stay at Nizamuddin Markaz in New Delhi. These incidents were not particularly based on facts and evidence but on the sentiment prevalent in the country. Eventually, almost all of these cases turned into acquittals.

Several courts, both trial and high courts, have over the past months come down heavily on the government for “mishandling the situation” and targeting a community over baseless charges. In a powerfully worded order, Bombay high court Judge T.V. Nalawade observed that both print and electronic media had launched propaganda against the foreigners who had come to the Markaz in Delhi.

“An attempt was made to create a picture that these foreigners were responsible for spreading COVID-19 virus in India,” the court had observed.

People wearing masks leave for hospital in a bus from Nizamuddin area, after several people at the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters showed symptoms of COVID-19 in New Delhi, Monday, 30 March. Photo: PTI

The court had also blamed the government for finding a “scapegoat” in the Jamaat members to blame them for the spread of the pandemic in the country. “It is now high time for the concerned to repent about this action taken against the foreigners and to take positive steps to repair the damage done by such action,” the court had further observed.

This and several other courts’ orders, however, came in only after over 3,500 foreign nationals, including several pregnant women and children, from 35 different countries, were imprisoned for several days and later left to fend for themselves in an unknown and now hostile country.