When Journalism Becomes the Flagbearer of Hate, Can the Resistance to It Be Anything but Political?

The attempt in some quarters to brush off these questions and frame the INDIA alliance’s boycott of 14 prominent hate-spewing TV anchors as an attack on journalism itself, is nothing but a defence of communalism in the name of defending journalistic principles.

Is the act of taking a stand against communalism an act of opposing journalism?

When the line separating communalism and journalism has been completely erased, how must the situation be countered?

When journalism becomes thoroughly communalised, is it entitled to the protection of journalism’s foundational principles and the safeguards provided to its practitioners?

If the person who pulls the trigger becomes a news anchor, or a news anchor provokes others to pull the trigger, can these acts be justified on the basis of the written and unwritten rules of journalism?

The attempt in several quarters to brush off these questions and frame the INDIA alliance’s boycott of 14 prominent hate-spewing television anchors as an attack on journalism itself, is nothing but a defence of communalism in the name of defending journalistic principles. 

For that matter, have television channel owners come out in support of their news anchors, saying that the allegations of hate speech made against them are completely false, and that their news anchors do not spread any kind of hate speech on air?

Interestingly, more than the television network owners, it is the BJP which has jumped to the news anchors’ defence. Clearly, they are not defending ethical journalism but the hate speech which aids their politics. In any case, the ministers who have jumped into the fray are not exactly known for their stellar record in respecting journalistic principles.

It could be that the BJP’s stance is prompted by a worry that the INDIA alliance’s move will succeed in turning the biggest front of communal politics in the country’s landscape, namely the ‘godi’ (lap-dog) media, into a crucial political issue in the eyes of the people.

The statement of the News Broadcasters and Digital Association (NBDA) also criticised the boycott move, saying that the declaration of the list of 14 is tantamount to “browbeating journalists” and “stifling freedom of speech”, and is a throwback to the Emergency era.

But even the NBDA fought shy of saying that the anchors named in the list do not spread communal hatred on their shows, that the opposition’s allegation is unfounded.

The same NBDSA had earlier imposed a fine on TV18 news anchor Aman Chopra for two of his programmes. No wonder its statement has no mention of hate speech. Ironical, considering that the entire controversy is centred around the question of television news anchors giving vent to communal hatred on air. Why have the news channels and the NBDA not stated clearly that they will curb hate speech?

Also Read: Gandhi’s 1926 Call for Boycott of Newspapers Spreading Hatred Resonates With INDIA’s Decision

When journalism assumes the role of a flagbearer of communalism, can the resistance to it be anything but political? Moreover, without taking the issue to the people, would a stand against hate speech carry any meaning? Without engaging with these questions, debating whether the INDIA alliance’s method of boycotting journalists is right or not is simply a waste of time.

I listened carefully to the statements of Pawan Khera and Raghav Chaddha, spokespersons of the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party. They were not aggressive in any way, nor were they provoking their cadres to resort to aggression. In fact, Khera made it clear that they did not hate the anchors named in the list, and in the event that the journalists realised the error of their ways, they would be happy to return to their shows.

The INDIA alliance parties should appeal to their cadres and supporters to refrain from trolling the 14 journalists and threatening them with the prospect of imprisonment. This is a political battle which needs to be fought through democratic means, not in the way the BJP is known for. It is the opposition’s responsibility to prepare society to be politically aware.

The INDIA alliance has faced criticism of two kinds. On one side are the news anchors, their channels and the BJP, who have termed the boycott an assault on democracy. The fact that they are on the same side is not without reason.

On the other side are those who consider the boycott valid, and a right of the opposition, but add in the same breath that the alliance should not have publicised the names of the boycotted journalists. They see this move as a danger to journalism, little realising that there is no journalism left in those news channels. Journalists Sagarika Ghose, Vir Sanghvi and Rajdeep Sardesai are among those who subscribe to this view.

In an elaboration of the same view, journalist Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrint, has written that there have been instances of the BJP boycotting journalists, too, but they have gone about it in a more “sophisticated” fashion.

Does he really think that the way the media from the district level to Delhi has been stamped on from the time Modi came to power in 2014 can be described as ‘sophisticated’?

He also writes that but for one exception, the BJP has never officially announced a boycott of journalists. It is important to ask what that exception was. Was it limited to not sending BJP spokespersons to NDTV in its pre-Adani avatar? Has Shekhar Gupta forgotten how journalists were singled out and marked, made to leave their jobs, among them female journalists as well?

Across states, FIRs were filed against many journalists who were viciously trolled courtesy the BJP’s IT cell. Were all these ‘sophisticated’ methods?

Unable to see the dangerous game of boycotting journalists that has been going on at various levels from 2014 onwards, Shekhar Gupta has busied himself with crafting criticism against the opposition’s move to boycott some news anchors. Has the dangerous game of boycotting journalists ceased during the years of the Modi government?

During the last Lok Sabha session, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey had named journalists Abhisar Sharma and Rohini Singh and levelled allegations against them. Was that a ‘sophisticated’ move as well?  Those remarks were first expunged but later restored.

At the very least, Shekhar Gupta should have mentioned that journalist Siddique Kappan’s arrest and two-year long incarceration in a jail in Uttar Pradesh was not ‘sophisticated’.

On the one hand, allegations of money laundering to the tune of billions against the Adani group have been digested by the dispensation in a ‘sophisticated’ manner; and, on the other hand is the example of Kappan, who was accused of laundering Rs 5,000.

Watch: Former SEBI Chief Says Adani Story by FT-OCCRP ‘Very Persuasive’

There is one more way of looking at the veteran journalist’s argument. If overwhelming pressure from the dispensation leads to the exit of an anchor, and all avenues of writing are closed off so that the journalist is unable to earn a living and sinks into oblivion, one should keep mum, for such things ‘keep happening’. Because this is the ‘sophisticated’ way of getting things done.

Shekhar Gupta’s entire word edifice rests on this foundation – such things keep happening. The only mode of boycott of journalists that he seems to have a problem with is the opposition’s boycott of 14 anchors.

The view that such instances keep happening turns a real danger into something superficial, normalising it in the process. My objection is to this very mode of normalisation – that such episodes have always occurred in journalism and are in fact occurring all over the world.

Anyone can see that there is nothing routine about the crisis of journalism that the Indian media is undergoing. But if the entire debate is cleverly framed in terms of an issue concerning journalism, it draws a veil over the real question of communalism, and the day is saved. The piece ends up normalising every means employed by this dispensation to repress journalism as a routine part of journalism.

In 2016, when the then chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, suspended government advertising to the Rajasthan Patrika, its proprietor-editor Gulab Kothari, in a front-page editorial, described the move as dictatorial. Going by the logic of the argument that such instances keep happening in journalism, Kothari should not have questioned the then government’s decision.

Shekhar Gupta writes that it is a known fact that governments suspend advertisements to publications that are not “suitable”, adding that “you and I both know” what that means.

The question is, do we do anything with that knowledge? Is this, too, a sophisticated way of not raising such issues in decent and cultured circles, even though it may be a question of survival for the beleaguered publication or news channel?

The veteran journalist touches upon the issue of hate speech: “That hate sells and is so TRP/market friendly, makes it worse.”

Also Read: ‘When Politics and Religion Are Segregated, This’ll Stop’: 8 Quotes From SC’s Words on Hate Speech

I wonder, is Mukesh Ambani in such urgent need of some 10-20 crore rupees of revenue that a news anchor has to present a hate-filled debate in the name of religion? If that show were to be discontinued, would Mukesh Ambani be forced to auction off his palatial mansion?

The question that should have been asked is whether Mukesh Ambani can cancel a hate-filled show on his television channel or not. The fact is, it is not Ambani who has the answer to this question but Narendra Modi.

Who doesn’t understand that these debate shows are not an exercise in journalism; they are platforms to facilitate the expansion of BJP’s politics. These aspects are completely missing in Shekhar Gupta’s piece.

He has employed language (English) to put a beautiful cloak of acceptability, or legitimacy, over the issue of communalism, as if it’s just some problem that journalism is facing. In my view, this article is a classic defence of communalism in the guise of journalism, one that should be mandatory reading in classrooms.

Journalist Ajit Anjum has written that the BJP has stopped sending its spokesperson to ABP anchor Sandeep Chaudhary’s show. However, this case is very different from the opposition’s boycott. Unlike the list of 14, Chaudhary does not present shows that seek to foment communal hatred. He asks the questions that a journalist needs to ask. Yet the BJP has boycotted his show.

Has there been any statement either from the channels that have questioned the INDIA alliance’s boycott or the NBDA, saying that the BJP’s boycott of Sandeep Chaudhary’s show is taking India dangerously close to an Emergency-like situation?

The television anchors who found their names on the INDIA alliance’s boycott list started fulminating that, no matter what, they would continue to ask questions.

It was convenient to forget that the opposition to them was in no way concerned with their asking questions; the INDIA alliance’s stand was purely on account of their hate speech, their increasingly communally charged language and bearing in their shows.

As for their resolve to continue asking questions, it would be nice if one of them could post the link of a video to show how they ask questions of the prime minister and home minister of our country.

The point is that everyone knows about the banishment of questions from 2014 onwards. When one Union minister reminded the news anchor about the time he spent in prison, was that not intimidation by the minister, and an assault on democracy?

The fundamental question is whether a political party should send its representative to shows that deepen communal polarisation. If the answer is no, then the question is whether the political party should go through with its decision in an unstated manner. However, as a mode of democratic resistance, there is nothing better than non-cooperation, or boycott, carried out in a public and transparent manner.

By making its decision public, the opposition has made it clear that the fight against communalism also necessitates taking a stand against the godi (lap-dog) media’s journalism that has become thoroughly communalised.

To be clear, the INDIA alliance is not boycotting the named anchors because of their tough questions, the way Modi did many years ago when, offended by show host Karan Thapar’s questions, he simply took off the mic and walked out of the studio.

On earlier occasions, opposition parties have silently boycotted shows that sought to heighten the pitch of communal polarisation, as Shekhar Gupta has indicated, but it proved ineffective.

The opposition’s public decision to boycott anchors is not a knee-jerk response. It has come after a decade of watching such vitiated programmes. Courts too have asked if any anchor fomenting communal hatred has been taken off air. There are so many Supreme Court comments against hate speech, but despite court directives, have any channels been proceeded against on these grounds?

The disastrous consequences of hate-mongering shows are there for all to see. Wherever communal violence erupts, the government shuts down the internet. But the channels that broadcast programmes fomenting hate are never shut down. The quarters from where the communal project of godi journalism is getting its support is absolutely clear.

The fight against communalism cannot be fought secretively. Nor can there be a different set of rules for resisting communal hatred in different walks of life and from different platforms.

In the current context, all those who want to be part of this resistance need to answer one question – the question I posed at the very beginning of this piece: at a time when the godi media presents the biggest front of communalism, is the act of taking a stand against communalism an act of opposing journalism?

Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.

Ravish Kumar is a senior journalist. You can find him on his YouTube channel, @ravishkumar.official.