Note: This article contains mentions of suicide.
On June 18, the National Human Rights Commission, after hearing my complaint alleging sensationalisation in the coverage of Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, ordered the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to take ‘appropriate action’ within eight weeks on the matter.
The complaint alleged that deaths of famous people, like that of Rajput’s, are “dramatised and glamourised” in an “abhorrent, shameful and insensitive” manner. It specifically pointed out some examples of news coverage by prominent Hindi news channels Aaj Tak, Zee News and ABP News that were clearly objectionable to many.
“Aise kaise hit wicket hogaye Sushant?” (Aaj Tak), and “Patna ka Sushant, Mumbai me fail kyu?” (Zee News) were some of the examples that were highlighted in the complaint.
While alleging that no guidelines, whether of the World Health Organization or of the Press Council of India to cover such sensitive cases were followed, the complaint specifically prayed that such guidelines be issued by the Commission for all media houses to stick to.
“This will ensure dignity to the dead, safeguard the victim’s family members and ensure such sensationalisation does not happen in future,” it argued.
However, the NHRC fell short of passing any such guidelines and shifted the responsibility to the government.
Ministry asks NBSA to act within 4 weeks
In a letter marked “Most Immediate” on June 26, the ministry wrote to the Secretary General of News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), Annie Joseph, informing her of the complaint and the order of the NHRC and instructed her to take “further necessary action” on the complaint within four weeks “under intimation to this Ministry”.
For those who do not know about the NBSA, it is an independent nine-member body set up by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) for the regulation of the 24×7 news channels that are part of the NBA. It functions both as a watchdog and grievance redressal body.
NBSA’s primary job is to consider and adjudicate upon complaints about broadcasts on member news channels. The body also issues guidelines for covering sensitive news from time to time. The NBSA is currently headed by former Supreme Court Justice A.K. Sikri.
Any person who finds any content on any of the member channels objectionable under the code of ethics and broadcasting standards can complain to the representatives of the news channels within seven days from the airing of the objectionable content.
There are fixed time frames within which member channels have to reply to complaints. In case of unsatisfactory response or no response, complainants can then complain to the NBSA after which suitable action could be taken against those channels.
After receiving this letter, NBSA wrote to Aaj Tak, Zee News and ABP News asking them for their response on the complaint within seven days.
Regrets and denials
Replying to the complaint, Aaj Tak’s compliance officer for NBSA Nasser Kabir wrote, “We deeply regret that any act of ours or our news channel has caused any concern to you.”
He still defended the channel’s coverage. On the use of the viral “hit wicket” banner, Aaj Tak said:
“…[T]he expression ‘hit wicket’ ordinarily is a cricketing term but has attained a colloquial meaning. It means a situation when a well-placed person commits a blunder and falters in his pursuit. Moreover, [l]ate Sushant Singh Rajput was very well regarded for his lead role in the [m]ovie named and styled as ‘M.S.Dhoni: The Untold Story’. Therefore, employing of terms, which has connection with cricket, is natural and obvious. We believe that the said term aptly justified the position we were in”.
The banner garnered widespread criticism on social media users and #ShameOnAajTak became the number one trend on Twitter that day.
Hindi news channel Aaj Tak on Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death:
‘How did Sushant get hit wicket?’
(A term used in cricket) #ShameOnAajTak pic.twitter.com/mEvRFdbqgr
— Norbert Elekes (@NorbertElekes) June 14, 2020
On the charge of hounding Rajput’s family for a comment, Aaj Tak said its reporting was only to inform the public about the incident. “We have treated him with dignity and respect,” the reply read.
The channel however did not comment on another graphic it ran that gave details of the noose which was allegedly used by Rajput to hang himself. Giving such details specifically goes against WHO guidelines and guidelines adopted by the PCI.
ABP News, on the other hand, denied all allegations made in the complaint and said that they have not violated any principles of human dignity, human rights and guidelines of the PCI or WHO. “In fact, this being a celebrity suicide we had taken extra caution to report this in a careful manner,” the reply by Kishan Singh Rawat of the ABP News Network read.
Zee News has not yet replied to the complaint, despite repeated e-mails, thus violating the seven-day mandatory time-frame set for a response. The story will be updated if and when they reply.
But these three channels are not the only ones whose reportage was found insensitive and unethical. For example, TV9 Telugu went a step ahead and ran an uncensored photo of Rajput’s body that went viral on social media the same day he died, specifically pointing out marks on his neck. Some newspapers also were similarly insensitive. Gujarat Samachar, one of Gujarat’s oldest, published the same photo of Rajput’s dead body on its front page the very next day.
Notably, according to the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, a collaborative international organisation developed by leading experts in suicide prevention:
“More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. This phenomenon is referred to as suicide contagion and the magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage”.
Channels keep violating ethical boundaries
This is not the first time that the Indian media has been criticised for lack of sensitivity and professionalism while covering high-profile sensitive cases. All ethics had gone for a toss during Bollywood actor Sridevi’s death. After it was found that the actress had allegedly died in a bathtub, Aaj Tak, while covering the story, ran a headline declaring “Maut ka bathtub” (‘Bathtub of death’) with a photo of a bathtub in the background.
Aaj Tak covering celebrities death.#SushantSinghRajput pic.twitter.com/ZpFNqD3OlR
— Nimmo Tai (@CrypticMiind) June 14, 2020
TimesNow aired three possible theories on how the actor may have died, which included consumption of alcohol, loss of balance and drowning. Channels, notably, are explicitly told to resist from spreading conspiracy theories.
How effective is the NBSA?
If we go by the present case, Zee News has still not responded to the complaint, which shows its scant regard for authority. And this is not the first time that the NBSA has been undermined.
On November 9, 2019, the self-regulatory authority had ordered English news channel Republic TV to air an unconditional apology for previously undermining NBSA’s authority in a different ethical violations case. Not only did it not comply, but an alternate “self-regulatory” body named News Broadcasters Federation was formed with Republic editor Arnab Goswami as its head. The NBF has no website till date, where one can access the rules it follows for self-regulation.
While several topics are censored, regulation remains elusive. Due to the completely lawless manner in which most TV news channels run, ethical violations, privacy breaches, sensational spectacle of deaths, fake news and doctored videos have become rampant. And mostly they go unchecked and unpunished.
The NBSA’s usefulness in this regard is compromised due to four main reasons:
- NBSA’s code of ethics and broadcasting standards is limited to member news channels. This effectively means that out of the nearly 400 permitted satellite news channels in the country, NBSA can only adjudicate on matters relating to its 27 member broadcasters and their 77 channels.
- NBSA’s inability to attain a statutory status from the government for its code and redressal regulations, to be applicable on all TV news channels, has further slowed this fight against what would otherwise qualify as examples of yellow journalism. The Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory ad industry watchdog was able to get its code applicable on all advertisements in 2006 and since then it has helped contain misleading advertisements in the country.
- Unawareness seems to be another big reason why TV news channels get away with what they do. Many are unaware of the NBSA and its complaint redressal mechanism. An encouraging system like that devised by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, a self-regulatory body for non-news TV channels, which mandates all its member broadcasters to run a scroll making viewers aware of the complaint filing mechanism, should be put in place for news channels too.
Implementing these reforms in the existing self-regulatory regime would strengthen the system, ensure fair coverage of news stories, ethical conformity, higher standards and less yellow journalism, while also keeping the need for government interference at bay.
Saurav Das is an RTI activist and freelance journalist.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers they can call to speak in confidence. You could also accompany them to the nearest hospital.