How Rightwing Media Outlets' Obsession with Shaheen Bagh Led to False Reporting

As protesters joined Delhi riots relief efforts and left for Friday prayers, channels reported Shaheen Bagh had 'emptied'.

New Delhi: Last Friday, what we have come to understand as “rightwing news channels” swarmed the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest hotspot which is Shaheen Bagh to run another campaign to delegitimise the protests that had entered their 83rd day at that time.

In a bid to reinforce the ongoing narrative against the protests, the news channels including Republic TV, OpIndia and India TV carried stories that suggested that the protesters had given up. However, a day after these channels trended #EmptyShaheenBagh on Twitter, the protest site was packed with the demonstrators making preparations for Women’s Day to be observed on March 8. 

Kausar Shaheen, a lady in her forties, summed it up well when she stood with a microphone, voice resounding through multiple speakers, and exhorted upon them to maintain their support to the movement in the face of a brutal campaign to derail the protests by rightwing politicians and mainstream media.

“Let us pledge that we don’t speak to the state-sponsored media who instead of reporting the truth serve the interests of the regime,” Shaheen said, while addressing the crowd. 

Also read: Shaheen Bagh: What Irks the Saint?

It is not for the first time that the legitimacy of the Shaheen Bagh’s protests is under question. In January this year, Bharatiya Janata Party social media head Amit Malviya made claims that the protests at Shaheen Bagh are sponsored by the Congress party.

Malviya had posted a video on Twitter in which a group of men could be heard talking about the women of Shaheen Bagh taking Rs 500-700 to sit in the protests. Alt News carried an investigative story, which was also carried on The Wire, that revealed the video was shot in a shop and was to misinform people about the protests. 

Media hostility 

The mainstream media has run extensive campaigns to defame the protests as they garnered global attention and support from public figures. The likes of Anurag Kashyap and Zeeshan Ayub even shared the stage with the protesters.

Sustained misreporting of events which led to the obscuring of the real motive behind the protests by the media has created a mistrust among the protesters. News outlets have either under-reported the stories or carried distorted versions of them. 

Republic TV on its primetime debate on Friday stated that the reason behind the diminishing number of demonstrators is the lack of coverage by the “partner media”— a term ostensibly used by the channel for outlets which have been countering and fact-checking Republic TV’s narrative.

Also read: Firing on Jamia Students: From Falsehood to Victim Blaming, Republic TV Spins a Yarn

The decline in the number was seen after the violence in north east Delhi, as many protesters from the adjoining areas went to join relief efforts in the affected areas. While reporters of the news outlets thronged to the Shiv Vihar and Mustafabad camps, Republic TV chose Friday evening to film the empty streets of Shaheen Bagh. One of the main reasons why the streets were empty was because demonstrators had been busy getting ready for congregational Friday prayers. 

A screenshot of the Republic TV website page, containing the reports on Shaheen Bagh emptying out.

A imaginative reason that the channel gave for the low number of protesters was the “disruption in serving of biryani”. “Levelling allegations has become a norm for the state-sponsored media,” a protester told the writers, asking for anonymity.

On February 17, the government appointed a group of three interlocutors that included advocates Sanjay Hegde, Sadhna Ramachandran and a former bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah. With apparently nothing to offer to the demonstrators, the mediators asked them to find a solution that would be in the interest of communal harmony before Holi.

The story by Republic TV that covered the event also lacked the version of the protesters. The monotonous report stressed on the government’s efforts to assigning mediators to talk to the protesters and made no mention of how the crowd responded to the offers made by the interlocutors. Besides that, the seven demands made by the protesters were vaguely clubbed into two lines at the bottom of the story.

The story also gives the notion that the Supreme Court acted on its own and sent the mediators. However, the Supreme Court had acted on a PIL filed by Nand Kishore Garg and Amit Sahni seeking the removal of the protesters at Shaheen Bagh. 

Many outlets, on the other hand, carried the version of the interlocutors saying that the coordinators of the protests welcomed them and despite the tense situation due to riots, the protesters maintained peace. 

Similar attempts were made by India TV when Meenakshi Joshi and Diksha Pandey from the channel visited Shaheen Bagh at around 2 pm on Friday when most of the participants were not present at the site of protest. The desperation to paint a negative image of the protests was visible in the anchors’ manner of dealing with the protesters. Repeating the same question multiple times in a 23-minute-long video, the reporter irked the demonstrators who then tried to restrict her from filming by sloganeering. 

A screenshot of India TV’s website page containing the video of their Shaheen Bagh report.

OpIndia started their story with a reference to the Delhi riots. It used the terms like “Islamist mobs” and “innocent Hindus” to conclude that Muslims attacked Hindus in north east Delhi where a majority of Muslims were forced to flee and their houses, looted. Their report largely relied on inputs from Republic TV and called the protesters of Shaheen Bagh “Islamic fundamentalists.” 

A screenshot of OpIndia’s report on Shaheen Bagh on Thursday, March 5.

Habibullah’s affidavit

The SC-appointed interlocutors made strong observations that found no mention in these media outlets. They visited the Shaheen Bagh area only to find that the protests occupied only one side of the road while the other side of the road and adjoining roads were unnecessarily barricaded by the police. Wajahat Habibullah submitted an affidavit of his findings to SC that contained eight statements with sub-parts, the affidavit read:

“I state that during my visit to the site I personally noticed that an ambulance as well as a school van was given immediate safe passage by those protesting at the site. On enquiring about complaints that ambulances and school vans were not being allowed to pass, I was informed that all ambulances and school vans that clear the police barricade after being found to be genuine by the police, are given immediate safe passage through the protest site without any delay.”

While the media maintained that the protesters at Shaheen Bagh were there to hijack democracy, Wajahat in his affidavit mentioned that they were peaceful and people from all religions participated in them. 

“…No one has ever complained of any violence at any time. They pointed out that none of the residents of Shaheen Bagh or the shop keepers whose shops are located in the vicinity, have raised objections to the protest, as they empathise with the protesters,” the affidavit added further.

Omer Fayaz is a freelance journalist based in Delhi and Rayees Amin is an independent filmmaker.