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New Delhi: The self-regulatory body for news broadcasters recently fined News18 India Rs 50,000 for the way in which a discussion on the hijab ban in Karnataka was conducted, saying the channel gave panellists a platform to express “extreme views” which could adversely affect communal harmony.
The News Broadcasting & Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA), which is the self-regulatory body for all members of the News Broadcasters & Digital Association, issued the order on October 21 based on a complaint filed by an individual.
The programme against which the complaint was filed was a debate conducted by News18 India – aired on April 6, 2022 – on the controversy that emerged in Karnataka following a ban imposed by the government on wearing hijab in educational institutions. Then Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri had praised a Muslim girl who had responded to a group of boys heckling her with “Allahu Akbar”.
During the broadcast, the anchor Aman Chopra referred to the Muslim students as “hijabi gang”, “Hijabwali Gazwa Gang” and made a false allegations that they had resorted to rioting, the complaint said. He also claimed that Zawahiri and terrorist organisations were behind the hijab row in India. One panellists accused another panellist of being a supporter of terrorist groups, the complaint said.
The NBDSA said that the channel was free to choose the topic of discussion “as it comes within the freedom of expression of the broadcaster” but said it is primarily concerned with the fact as to whether the broadcaster and anchor adhered to the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards during the show.
“It is reiterated that NBDSA did not have any issue with the subject of the debate. However, on examination of the matter, it found that the problem lay with the narrative and the tilt that was given to the programme,” the order, signed by NBDSA chairperson and former Supreme Court judge A.K. Sikri says.
The body said that it did not find merit in the broadcaster’s submission that the terms “Hijabi Gang”, “Hijabwali Gazwa Gang” and “the Zawahiri gang” were used only in respect of the “invisible powers which were allegedly behind the controversy” and not in respect of the students who were protesting.
It also “strongly deprecated” the tendency of the broadcaster to associate those panellists who were in favour of the hijab with Zawahiri and labelling them as “Zawahiri gang member”, “Zawahiri’s ambassador”,”Zawahiri is your God, you are his fan”, etc. The NBDSA said it also did not find any justification in linking those panellists or persons who were supporting the hijab with Al-Qaeda by airing tickers stating “#AlQaedaGangExposed”.
The order says that the anchor had not only acted in flagrant disrespect of the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards but had also failed to abide by the decision of the Bombay high court in Nilesh Navalakha vs Union of India (2021), which enjoins an anchor to apply their mind to prevent the programme from drifting beyond the permissible limits.
NBDSA noted that even the Supreme Court has recently stressed on the role of the anchor to maintain a balance between the panellists and the crucial role they play in stopping hate speech. “However, in the instant case, not only had the anchor failed to stop the other panellists from crossing the boundary but had given them a platform to express extreme views which could adversely affect the communal harmony in the country,” the order says.
It said the programme violated the principles relating to impartiality, neutrality, fairness and good taste & decency under the Specific Guidelines Covering Reportage, apart from the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards. “NBDSA stated that the broadcaster would be well advised to guide and train its anchor on how to conduct debates on such sensitive issues,” the order notes.
Keeping in mind the “repetitive nature of the above violations”, the NBDSA decided to impose a fine of Rs 50,000 on the broadcaster and admonished the broadcaster. It said if such violations are repeated in future, it may have to direct the broadcaster to ensure the presence of the anchor Aman Chopra before it. The body also directed the broadcaster to remove the video of the programme from its website and all platforms within seven days of the order.
Two other orders issued
The NBDSA also issued two other orders related to News18 India on the same day, one relating to a programme on “bulldozer justice” aired on April 20, 2022 and another in which the complaint said the channel created a false narrative around the demolition of a temple in Rajasthan’s Alwar, aired on April 22, 2022.
About the demolition of alleged illegal constructions, the NBDSA “strongly deprecated the tendency of the broadcaster to generalise sensitive issues” and the use of offending tickers like “Jihadi”, which it said was totally unnecessary. “Had the debate confined to the menace of illegal constructions and the steps that are required to contain such illegal constructions, there could not have been any problem. However, the narrative of the programme gave an altogether different tilt and in the process violated the guidelines prescribed in the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards which was impermissible,” the order says, asking the broadcaster to take down this video also.
On the programme about the temple in Alwar, the self-regulatory body deferred its decision after the channel informed it that several FIRs were registered in respect of the programme and its anchor and that the matter is currently being investigated by Rajasthan Police and is also sub-judice before the Jaipur and Jodhpur benches of the Rajasthan high court.