New Delhi: The News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) on Monday, January 30, issued “guidelines for prevention of hate speech” which direct editors, editorial personnel, anchors, journalists and presenters who are part of its member organisations to refrain from using “language and agenda-driven words”, “terms and adjectives” and “all forms of expression” which among other things advocate violence or engender hatred against individuals or communities.
These guidelines come just about a fortnight after a bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna, had, while hearing a batch of cases involving allegations of hate speech, asked the independent broadcasting self-regulatory body about the action taken against anchors for hate speech. “How many times have you taken off anchors? Have you dealt with anchors in the way you send a message?” Justice Joseph had asked.
Incidentally, the NBDSA covers nearly 80% of all news and digital channels. The Authority was originally set up by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) 14 years ago as the News Broadcasting Standard Authority (NBSA). The name was later changed to NBDSA as the body opened itself to digital platforms too.
New guidelines do not cover Sudarshan TV, Republic TV
It is also pertinent to note that the new guidelines issued by NBDSA do not cover two major channels – Sudarshan TV and Republic TV – which had walked out of the NBA a few years ago.
These guidelines state that NBDSA has “received several complaints concerning the increase in the use of inflammable, derogatory, extremist, divisive, hurtful language and rhetoric in news programmes.” It said such usage, targets individuals or groups or communities based on their religion, gender, race, national or ethnic origin, and/or sexual orientation” and affects their inherent dignity and equality and disturbs the social harmony in general.
In light of these complaints, NBDSA said it was is of the view that “dissemination of such expression through the media has a powerful and pernicious impact on the delicate social fabric of the country and violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India.” Therefore, it reasoned that it had “become necessary to lay down Guidelines for Prevention of Hate Speech, which the members must bear in mind before broadcasting and/or publishing any news item.”
The guidelines also caution against using “expressions of contempt, disgust or dismissal which advocate for the exclusion, boycott, or segregation of members of a community”; using harmful stereotypes, language which is intimidating, and which has a tendency to result in social and economic exclusion and segregation, and disseminating conspiracy theories in news programmes.
The NBDSA also noted that merely broadcasting a disclaimer to any programme would not absolve the editors, anchors, journalists or other editorial personnel of responsibility in case of a violation of the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards and the guidelines. It also noted that it would be “closely monitoring” the compliance of these guidelines.
In the past, NBDSA had also issued an “advisory on hate speech” on November 11, 2022 and “specific guidelines for anchors conducting programmes including debates” on October 28, 2022.
Several directions in the past on ‘communal colour‘ in programmes
Talking to The Wire, NBDSA counsel Nisha Bhambhani said: “We had issued guidelines to the anchors and an advisory on hate speech. We have also given several directions on communal colour which is equivalent to hate speech without calling it hate speech.”
She said many of the directions of the Authority, which are all uploaded on its site pertain to giving a communal colour which borders on hate speech. “So they were mostly about how the anchor had got a panel which was biased or the monologue or programmes were tracked in a manner which was communal and gave a communal colour. I am sure we also had one or two which actually could be called hate speech,” she said.
‘Authority plays role of court like PCI, but not accorded commensurate status by Centre’
On the work done by the Authority, as a quasi-legal body, she said: “We have had the maximum number of chairpersons who were former justices or chief justices of Supreme Court. We have had Chief Justice J.S. Verma, Justice R.V. Raveendran and Justice A.K. Sikri as heads of NBSA. Also, due to us, there have been around 4,000 complaints which have been disposed of and have not come to court – at the first level or at the second level. At the second level, the complaints were actually less.”
But while NBDSA has performed the same kind of role as the Press Council of India for the print media, it has not been accorded the same powers by the Union government. “This body was formed in 2008. We have always told the Union of India that if you recognise our court justice, we will have jurisdiction over all the channels,” Bhanbhani said, adding that this however did not happen.
On the channels moving out of the NBDA, which was created more to self-regulate them, to avoid scrutiny by the body, she said: “Now what happened is that NBF [National Broadcasters Federation] was formed by Republic TV as it did not want NBSA to be recognised. It also filed an affidavit in ongoing court proceedings in the matter. And the Union of India said we can’t recognise the court and guidelines of NBDA. At that stage, we were on the verge of permission from the court, where we would have the jurisdiction as the Supreme Court had said give us the affidavit and we will strengthen it.”
‘Problem’ is that not all channels are part of us, NBDSA told SC
Bhambhani said NBDSA has also explained its “problem” to the Supreme Court – “ that not everyone is our member. Both Sudarshan and Republic are not.” She added that “a majority of the times, after watching Republic or Sudarshan, the NBDA is blamed without realising that they are no longer our members. That is why we sought that our court be recognised.”
Incidentally, in October 2020, the Bombay high court asked why the Union government could not ratify and enforce the guidelines issued by private bodies such as the NBSA. The court had raised the question when counsel for the NBSA Neela Gokhale had submitted that it had taken action on several complaints received against news channels.
Another senior counsel, Arvind Datar, had pointed out that the NBSA had also imposed Rs 1 lakh maximum fine on some news channels for content that breached its guidelines and that while all other channels had apologised and paid the fine, the Republic TV had refused to do so. Gokhale had added that “the Republic TV then walked out of the National Broadcasters Association (NBA) and formed its own association, the National Broadcasters Federation.”