Tablighi Case: Experts Differ on Ways to Tame Unruly Media After Bombay HC’s Rebuke

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Filing cases against individual TV anchors and journalists is an option but other means of countering habitual offenders should also be explored, say legal and media veterans

Shaheen Nazar | Clarion India

NEW DELHI – The Bombay High Court has criticised the media in very strong words while hearing petitions by detained foreign nationals who had come to attend Tablighi Ijtema (congregation) in Delhi in March.

Quashing FIRs filed against 29 foreign nationals, the Aurangabad Bench of the high court observed on August 21: “There was big propaganda in print media and electronic media against the foreigners who had come to Markaz Delhi and an attempt was made to create a picture that these foreigners were responsible for spreading Covid-19 virus in India. There was virtually persecution against these foreigners… The latest figures of infection in India show that such action against present petitioners should not have been taken. It is now high time for the concerned to repent about this action taken against the foreigners and to take some positive steps to repair the damage done by such action.”

This is not the first time that the media has been criticised. A big section of media, especially the electronic media, has for a very long time been spreading lies and dividing society along communal lines. But its indictment by a constitutional authority is rare. Ideally, big media houses whose television anchors and journalists are indulging in spreading fake news and hate-mongering should have expressed regret and indicated that they were introspecting. But that has not happened in the past.

The kind of reporting some top-rated TV channels and large-circulated newspapers did soon after the pandemic-induced lockdown was declared in late March have its own history. Instead of giving news about coronavirus and government planning to face the health crisis, government-friendly media used the usual tactics of diverting attention.

It targeted the entire Muslim community using Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin as a pretext. The Tablighis who were stuck at the Nizamuddin because of the sudden declaration of the lockdown were projected as criminals. ‘Corona bombs’, ‘corona jihadis’, ‘corona terrorists’, ‘Talibani jihadis’, ‘human bombs’, were some of the attributes that TV anchors and journalists used to demonise the Tablighis, especially those who had come from more than 40 countries. Over 1,000 of them were detained throughout the country, most of whom continue to be incarcerated even after five months.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind has gone to the Supreme Court against the media blaming it for spreading fake news about Tablighis and causing hatred against the Muslim community. It has sued the Central government and the Press Council of India, as well as private self-regulatory bodies for electronic media, namely, the National Broadcasting Authority and the News Broadcasters Federation. The apex court has sought responses from all the parties named in the petition.

The Jamiat initiative raises a question: Is it going to tame the unruly media? If the answer is yes, why not file more such cases. People are of the view that unlike Jamiat, which has gone to court against unnamed media, cases should be filed against named individuals and companies. They cite the example of Arnab Goswami against whom multiple cases were filed in several states by Congress Party workers when the Republic TV anchor allegedly made false accusations against Sonia Gandhi.

Goswami had to face the music when he was called more than once by the Mumbai Police for interrogation. They also cite the example of Amish Devgan of Ambani-owned News18 who was challenged by the managements of Muslim shrines in Rajasthan, Telangana and Maharashtra for his uncharitable remarks against Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti during a TV show. In the face of FIRs, Devgan was forced to apologise to the Muslim community.

Advocate Fuzail Ayyubi, who is fighting the cases of foreign Tablighis in the Supreme Court, is of the opinion that criminal cases can be filed against individual journalists and media houses at local courts. But he says, “Why only an organisation like Jamiat should take cognizance? A citizen should come forward and file cases if he feels aggrieved by media content.” He also believes that the Supreme Court is not the place for such cases. “Local courts are capable enough to take care of such cases.”

Senior journalist Anil Chamadia, who heads Media Studies Group, a Delhi-based think tank, says instead of going to court, “we should think of going to people’s court.”

His advice is to get the judgements of the Bombay High Court and other courts which are written in English be translated into Hindi and all the languages mentioned under Schedule 8 and disseminate it through whatever means available. He says printed copies of such judgements and other relevant materials should be distributed in cities and villages by volunteers. Besides, text and audio as well as video clips should be sent through social media, he adds.

Chamadia, who edits Mass Media and Jan Media journals in English and Hindi respectively, has other pieces of advice as well. He says there should be a study of the extent of this malice spread in society.

“The trend of targeting the Muslim community is not new. Before the advent of TV channels, newspapers have been inventing fictitious organisations like Indian Mujahideen and so-called modules of Islamic terrorism. This has been going unchecked and unverified for the last three decades. In 2011, when Justice Markandey Katju was appointed chairman of the Press Council of India, I had approached him on behalf of the Media Studies Group with a proposal to conduct a study on this media trend of branding Muslims as terrorists. Justice Katju promised but did not sanction such study,” Chamadia said.

The senior journalist believes that the need for such a study is still there. His think-tank is capable of undertaking the job but is hamstrung by lack of funds. In 2006, the Media Studies Group, in collaboration with another think-tank, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), conducted a survey of 40 ‘national’ media organisations and found, among other things, that India’s ‘national’ media lacks social diversity; it does not reflect the country’s social profile; Hindu upper-caste men dominate the media; they are about 8 % of India’s population but among the key decision-makers of the national media with their share being as high as 71 %.

Mahtab Alam, a journalist who until recently was editor of The Wire, Urdu, says filing court cases against unruly TV anchors could be an option but it should be done with precaution. “As a former civil rights activist, I would advise caution because it has its own complexities. It involves the issue of freedom of expression. In future, it may be used against those who are crying foul today.”

What about filing a complaint with regulatory bodies? “Only the Press Council is a constitutional body, but we know how it functions these days. The Editors Guild of India, the National Broadcasting Authority, etc. are private bodies and lack any constitutional authority. Still, we can go for it. It makes news and brings marginal pressure on those who matter, although the so-called self-regulatory bodies for electronic media are headed by the very people we are complaining against,” he added.

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