Pawan Nara of Zee News was on duty at the JNU campus on February 18 with his cameraman, readying to report on the protest rally planned for that day. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by a group of laughing, teasing students who offered him flowers. He says they told him to “Get well soon”. They were referring to his television coverage of the now-infamous February 9 event held to express solidarity with the people of Kashmir, and oppose the hanging of Afzal Guru and JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat.
On February 19, NDTV India’s top anchor, Ravish Kumar, did his nightly Prime Time programme from his studio in Greater Kailash, New Delhi. Except, this time there were no visuals or guests. For 41 minutes, viewers heard only Kumar’s voice emanating from a black TV screen. Almost poetically, he touched on ill-health. “You all already know our television is unwell. We are all unwell. I am also unwell. TV has got TB. In the name of debate, does this daily noise give you light or darkness?” he said.
Nara was one of two television reporters at JNU on February 9. The other was from the news agency ANI. “I sent a photo of the poster to journalists on a WhatsApp group that I have, and told them that we at ABVP would be opposing this event,” says ABVP’s Saurabh Kumar Sharma. The contentious poster called for opposing the ‘Brahminical collective conscience’ and the ‘judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat’ and also endorsed the ‘democratic right to self-determination’ of the Kashmiri people. Sensing a TV-worthy faceoff, Nara’s bureau chief asked him to head to JNU.
Nara’s package that night was packed with tight shots of yelling and shoving between ABVP students and participants in the event for Afzal Guru. Zee News showed us clips of this latter group, standing in a circle raising slogans for the freedom of Kashmir. Nara attempted a piece to camera amidst the scuffle. He was drowned out by the chaos. This 6.52-minute report kicked off what is being called the ‘JNU crackdown’, and the ‘undeclared emergency’ that has brought condemnation and congratulations alike for the BJP government.
As the nation-state battles existential questions—who is a patriot, who gets to define patriotism, is dissent patriotic—the media is thrown into a churn as well. Placards at student protests against the crackdown were pasted on the tongue-in-cheek front pages of The Telegraph, which punned on Smriti Irani with the headline: Kyunki mantriji kabhi student nahi thi. Others printed out screenshots of Arnab Goswami’s Times Now talk shows and labelled it ‘Jungle Justice’.
Two days after Nara’s report for Zee, the Vasant Kunj North police station filed a suo motu FIR on the issue. The FIR cited Nara’s report as its basis. Delhi Police PRO Rajan Bhagat says this had to be done, as “so many people were talking about it”. Indeed, it was a curious alignment of interests between media, government and police that led to the arrest of JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy. Several organisers of the February 9 event were similarly accused and went into hiding, of whom two, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, surrendered to the police on February 23. Even as vigilantes sought the narrowest possible definition of ‘patriotism’, thousands realised they just didn’t fit in.
Sedition, in the colonial-era Section 124A of the Indian Penal code, is defined as something that promotes “disaffection towards the government established by law”, and carries with it a life sentence. Judgements over time have ruled that for an act to be seditious, it needs to be accompanied by an incitement to violence.
But for many news organisations and large sections of social media, these details were not relevant as they mercilessly pronounced the students and their slogans anti-national. Channels began to run low quality, unverified footage. Shaky videos with poor audio were enough for anchors to hear what sounded like expressions of dire disaffection. Some of these videos were supplied by ABVP at a press conference held after the event. “We collected videos from those who were present. We had them on pen drives and whoever wanted them took them from us,” says ABVP’s Kumar.
Among the many casualties in this vexed episode, truth may be one of the biggest. Truth is supposed to be objective, but this sequence of events shows how, in the hands of unreliable narrators, it can be relative, variable and malleable.
For the media on the spoors of a story, it’s a tale of journalistic errors. Some of the most basic journalistic practices—balance and verification—were subverted as media organisations pursued strong nationalistic agendas that, in turn, influenced events on the ground. The biased reporting has split the media, politics and public.
Umar Khalid’s father, S.Q.R. Ilyas, asks: “After the kind of profiling my son was subjected to, his image circled, and him being projected as the most dangerous person in the country, can Umar have a normal life even if the court clears him?” asks. Vishwa Deepak, a producer who quit Zee News this week after admitting to having inserted speech blurbs saying ‘Pakistan zindabad’ despite indtistinct audio, also had questions. “We’ve created conditions for a civil war. What kind of journalism is this?” he wrote in his resignation letter.
Sudhir Chaudhary, Zee News editor, was Vishwa Deepak’s boss who took the call. He also anchors the Zee programme DNA. In a recent episode, he calmly but forcefully tells viewers: “We won’t tolerate insults towards India. Traitors will not be spared.” He went on to give a breakdown of how little it costs a JNU student to study at the university. If crude nationalism won’t convince, he hopes the economic one will. His channel has worked daily to drive home the alleged criminality of the students involved. Except, it didn’t concern itself overmuch with the ‘alleged’ part of the issue. They feel safe in the knowledge that their own team had heard the slogans and shot the footage.
For Chaudhary, his brand of ‘nationalistic journalism’ carries elements of the personal. “You know why I feel more agitated? When Parliament was attacked, I was in Parliament.” He is referring to the 2001 Parliament attack, for which Afzal Guru was hanged. “You have to draw the line. The country needs to decide.” As an anchor in command of a large viewer base, he has taken it upon himself to draw that line and make those decisions for the country.
Chaudhary’s words echo the establishment’s security paranoia. “That day, JNU campus was looking like a small pocket of Kashmir. JNU has become that mohalla of Delhi where police cannot enter.... I wanted people to ponder over it, and they should think that these things should be stopped at any cost. That’s why we ran a campaign. And we asked that the government should arrest the people,” he says.
The case has impelled people to come forward and take a stand, for people with opinions to express it—from Anupam Kher’s tweet on doing ‘pest control’ in the country and ABVP dissenters resigning in a fit of conscience over the violence to Barkha Dutt calling herself an ‘anti-national sickular presstitute’.
‘Campaign journalism’ has come to be a feature of Indian news media. It enables practitioners to draw out a single issue, keep it rolling and extract maximum mileage—TRPs, website hits or subscriptions. “This is not an isolated incident. This kind of partisan reporting has been building for a while at the hands of editors with a partisan view,” says former BBC journalist Sanjeev Srivastava. While campaigns in some form are pursued by many organisations, TV does something specific. It has begun to rouse the rabble for specific actions—demand that certain politicians resign, certain bureaucrats be dismissed, certain people be arrested and certain people be hanged. Pressure tactics previously used by activists for a specific, targeted cause. Today, politicians are in the studio, live on our screens, and forced to respond on air to the goading of anchors. Recently, Deepak Chaurasia of India News urged BJP MP Sambit Patra to file a case against ‘these anti-nationals’, now that he has heard their slogans.
Naturally, such an approach to journalism skews reporting itself and in fact starts impacting very the unfolding of events. “I have always felt uncomfortable about this style of journalism. The media’s understanding of what people need is not coming from real experience,” says AIPWA secretary Kavita Krishnan.
S.Q.R. Ilyas was not at home when his son Umar Khalid started being railed at on national television by Times Now’s Arnab Goswami. “When I came home, the TV was on,” he says. Goswami took his one primetime hour to condemn Khalid. “You. You. I’m talking about you. You are more dangerous to this country than Maoist terrorists!” he screamed at the 28-year-old. “Media is framing the chargesheet, media is declaring traitors. Where are we going?” asks Ilyas. “My family did not want me to go on TV seeing the mood and direction of coverage. But after a point, I felt I had to go on air to clarify. Except for Zee News and Times Now, I am okay with going on all other channels,” he says.
If Ravish Kumar is right about the sickness, then this style of journalism is infectious across newsrooms. Listen only to Chaudhary for proof. “I completely agree with Arnab’s line on this,” he says. “If Afzal is a shaheed, what is Hanumanthappa?” he asks, almost exactly echoing the righteous Arnab, who shouted at Khalid: “Don’t you dare speak over me...when I’m talking about Lance Naik Hanumanthappa!”
NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, who interviewed other student organisers in a hostel room, speaks of the need for a nuanced position. Despite her own ‘sentiments’ for the forces, as someone who has reported extensively on the army, she believes the idea of sedition has no place here. Adds N. Ram of The Hindu: “TV shows decided what was nationalist and anyone who didn’t comply with that authoritarian view was deemed anti-national.” But some editors prefer to eschew the half-tones of reality. For them, patriotism and a healthy critique of the polity don’t overlap. It is not possible for them to claim to believe in the Constitution, as thousands of JNU protesters do, whilst also criticising judicial failings.
Viewers of news TV are wilfully gullible—they want to believe what a politician says. And we want to believe familiar anchors when they speak with earnest conviction. Anchors know this. Thus, it matters when Arnab Goswami ‘authenticates’ Sambit Patra’s unclear video in the studio by saying, “I can clearly hear him say, ‘Leke rahenge azaadi’.” Times Now is not alone in this. NewsX editor Rahul Shivshankar also ran footage later shown to be doctored. The channel said it proved Kanhaiya and others were part of the “Afzal League”.
Maybe all the studio time makes the dynamics of protest unintelligible. Goswami professed to be taken aback to hear the call for freedom, but if he had dropped in at any of the massive protests in the capital since the 2012 Delhi gangrape, he would know, says Kavita Krishnan, that the “Azadi slogan has been adapted by several groups over the last many decades. It is not new.” She adds, “There is something about the word ‘nationalism’ that makes the media lose balance and nuance.”
The various versions of footage also created confusion. “You don’t put out a tape that damns someone and then duck if the tape is dodgy. Fairness and accuracy are sacred. You cannot compromise on these if you wish to be taken as a credible journalistic institution,” says Raj Kamal Jha, chief editor, Indian Express.
Vishwa Deepak says the videos Zee played “did not have any slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’, yet we repeatedly played it to arouse passions”. Chaudhary clarifies that there was “200 per cent” consensus in the newsroom. “We called in 20-30 peons, sweepers.... We showed them the footage. All of them said they heard the slogans.”
The News Broadcasters Association code of ethics says “specific care must be taken not to broadcast visuals that can be prejudicial or inflammatory”. But many took a range of positions on the videos. NDTV decided not to run any of them, although they reported about them. “I got the videos by WhatsApp. But the channel took a decision to be circumspect,” says Barkha. India Today TV did broadcast footage provided by ABVP of the Feb 9 event, but preceded it by a quick disclaimer that it couldn’t confirm its authenticity. “In all cases, you should verify your footage. If you do run without this, then you must run a disclosure,” says consulting editor of the India Today group, Rajdeep Sardesai.
Some ask if journos should now protest about being harassed? Should they have done more to counter the intolerance before it began to affect them? An ABP News reporter was bullied on TV by Yashpal Tyagi, a lawyer who assaulted people during Kanhaiya’s remand hearing. He challenged her to say ‘Vande Mataram’ before answering her questions. Perhaps Kanhaiya’s cry on being released will be: ‘Azaadi from manufactured nationalism’.
By Anoo Bhuyan in New Delhi