Mumbai: “Misinforms viewers,” “creates false narratives”, “distorts facts”, “could disturb communal harmony”, “completely unacceptable language”.
These were some of the warnings issued against content on media tilted towards India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by the News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA), a watchdog constituted by private television and digital news media.
Over 10 months of 2022, the NBDSA ordered 22 such stories taken down. At least eight of these involved news debates around unverified or false videos and photos with divisive or otherwise incendiary content. Some examples of these false or fictitious broadcasts:
–That Muslims in Uttar Pradesh had conspired to launch a vaccine jihad: broadcast on 30 May 2021 by Zee Hindustan using a video from Ecuador to allege that an Islamic conspiracy was underway to not vaccinate Hindus and leave them vulnerable to COVID-19. It was a lie.
–That Muslim girl students protesting in April 2022 against a hijab ban in Karnataka schools were linked to a global terror network: broadcast on 6 April 2022 by News18 India, the show linked the girls to the Al Qaeda and alleged that the girls were a part of the “Zawahiri gang”, connected with Ayman Al-Zawahiri, slain chief of Al Qaeda. It was a lie.
-That Muslims had hurled bombs at a school in West Bengal’s Murshidabad after hijabi girls were denied entry into a school, an act that would be replicated across the country if Muslim girls were denied the Hijab. Anchor asked, “Will bombs now rain in support of the hijab?”: broadcast by News18 India on 5 February 2022. There had been no such bombing.
-That there was a Hindu exodus from a locality in Moradabad because of a mazhabi kabza, a Muslim takeover of land in August 2021, forcing local Hindus to flee their homes: broadcast by Zee News on 3 August 2021. The Moradabad Police said there had been neither land-grab nor exodus.
-That there was a thook jihad (spit jihad) by Muslims spitting in food eaten by Hindus to convert them to Islam: aired by News18 India on 16 November 2021, the NBDSA found that at least three videos the channel aired as evidence were misleading, out-of-context, with one from the Philippines, passed off as Indian.
Article14 accessed NBDSA orders in the 22 cases. All violated the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards, a set of standards voluntarily agreed upon by broadcasters, as well as the Centre’s Cable Television Network Rules 1994. Twelve of the 22 instances were from Zee News and Zee Hindustan alone, six from News18 India and the rest scattered between smaller regional language channels.
Article14 sought comment from Zee News and News18 India, but there was no response. We also sought comments from the NBDSA 3 times, but there was no response. We will update this story if there is a response.
Apart from being asked to pull down these videos, the channels that broadcast these, faced no scrutiny or action from peers or the government. More evidence of inaction against obviously fake or misleading and potentially incendiary content was made available by fact-checking websites.
Experts said the tolerance of this flood of fake news is a contrast to searches and seizure on 31 October 2022 of personal and office computers, phones and iPads from the homes and offices of the editors and business head of The Wire by the Delhi police within 48 hours of a defamation, forgery and cheating complaint by BJP spokesperson Amit Malviya.
Anya Schiffrin, the director of technology, media and communications at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs said there was “no justification” for the action against The Wire.
“The outlet was already doing its own investigation and had withdrawn its stories on Meta, so I don’t see the need for police action in this case,” said Schiffrin. “Rather, it seems there were political reasons behind the government’s excession actions.”
The Flood Of Fake, Incendiary News That Is Ignored
There are tens of other false or misleading stories that face not even censure or indeed acknowledgement that they are fake and could, and do, incite “communal feelings”, a criminal offence, said experts.
Since 1 September 2022, the fact-checking website Alt News found at least 11 instances where mainstream media channels and newspapers, most of them pro-government, reported unverified, inauthentic and misleading content.
Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha told Article 14 that they came across such examples “every week”, the fake or misleading stories lending “credibility and legitimacy to rumour-based social-media narratives” that either benefitted the BJP or harmed its political rivals.
Similarly, the fact-checking website Boom called out at least 16 instances since 1 September 2022 of mainstream media spreading misinformation through unverified content.
Boom managing editor Jency Jacob said that such misinformation was not just driven by poor journalistic processes inside TV newsrooms. “There are narratives and agendas being run, be it pro-government or anti-certain political parties and ideologies,” he said.
Jacob said he had commonly found channels pushing pro-government propaganda. “Channels try to praise the government on issues that, sometimes, even the government is not promoting," he said.
“Most often, these TV channels who are regularly flouting journalistic norms and practices get away with it; even the NBDSA’s orders come very late,” said Jacob.
Sources within the TV news industry had mixed views about the impact of these orders.
India’s police and criminal justice system usually ignore action against fake news with incendiary potential, said a popular news anchor-editor—speaking on condition of anonymity—when the ruling party or its supporters are involved.
The editor, who has had decades-long experience in Indian television newsrooms, said the action against The Wire was “absolutely selective”, and there was a pattern to it.
“In the past, we have even seen state governments, ruled by different parties, clamping down through official means to target channels and anchors who don’t toe their line,” the editor said. “This also happens through unofficial means, when ruling party politicians controlling the cable TV networks often enact unofficial bans on certain channels.”
The editor said television channels have gotten away with much of their content because they are aware that there is little accountability for their actions. “The NBDSA imposing a fine of Rs 50,000 on channels is barely a rap on the knuckles,” he said. “Beyond such moves, the NBDSA has no teeth.”
An insider at a news channel that has been hauled up by the NBDSA repeatedly contended that the ombudsman’s orders were taken seriously. “Reputation is everything in the news business,” said the executive, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Advertisers get spooked when they see that channels are being pulled up for hateful and fake content,” said the executive. The NBDSA might impose just a Rs 50,000 fine, but the negative publicity that it brings us is much more costly than that.”
Fake News Legitimised As Political Strategy
In general, India has developed a wide tolerance for fake and misleading news in general and on television in particular.
Kota Neelima, author and founder, director of the Institute of Perception Studies (IPS), which rates and analyses TV anchors and news TV debates, said misinformation on television was common.
“There is a kind of a continuous, relentless production of agenda-driven misinformation on the news TV shows and debates,” said Neelima. “Even if governments or citizens have problems with them, nothing seems to be able to stop this.”
One reason could be that disinformation-driven television helps create legitimacy for propaganda, especially since celebrity anchors “carry the weight of credibility and interpret daily events for and on behalf” of its audience, said Ram Bhat, PhD, a visiting fellow at the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics and the co-author of a recent book, Social Media and Hate.
'Disinformation is usually seen as individual fake messages, posts, but in practice, there are narratives of disinformation that flow within a media ecology, comprising social media, television and so on,” said Bhat.
“In this ecology, television plays a crucial role, as it creates a shared viewing that creates a sense of legitimacy that individually-consumed social media content does not quite manage to do,” said Bhat.
Television often takes its cues from social media, and fake news as a political strategy has, as is the case elsewhere in the world (here, here and here), been systematically promoted by the BJP, as home minister Amit Shah once acknowledged.
“Hum jo chaahein woh sandesh janta tak pahuncha saktey hain, chaahe khatta ho ya meetha ho, sacha ho ya jhoota ho. We can reach any message we want to the public, whether sour or sweet, true or false,” Shah told BJP workers in September 2018.
Calling out fake or misleading news and half-truths by not just pro-government television channels (here, here, here and here) but members of the ruling party (here, here, here and here), including the Prime Minister, and the lack of any retributive action, is so common that India’s fact-checking agencies do not ordinarily keep count.
Factchecker.in, a fact-checking website, once counted misleading and untrue claims made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and found 43 over five years to 2019.
Within 48 Hours: Police Raids After Defamation Complaint
Police raids at the homes of The Wire’s founding editors Siddharth Varadarajan, M K Venu, Sidharth Bhatia, deputy editor Jahnavi Sen and business head Mithun Kidambi came after it took down a series of stories that alleged how Malviya exerted significant influence over Meta’s content removal practices.
On 23 October, The Wire retracted the stories when it found they were based on fabricated documents. On 29 October, the Delhi police registered a first information report (FIR) against five members of The Wire. The raids came within 48 hours.
The FIR accused The Wire’s staff of cheating (section 420); dishonestly inducing delivery of property, forgery for the purpose of cheating (section 468); forgery for the purpose of harming reputation (section 469); using as genuine a forged document or electronic record (section 471); punishment for defamation (section 500); criminal conspiracy (section 120 B); and acts done by several persons in furtherance with common intention (section 34) of the Indian Penal Code 1860.
If found guilty, they face a jail term that may extend to seven years along with a fine.
“This kind of pushback (against The Wire) is unprecedented. In keeping with the principles of self-regulation, The Wire took action on its own work,” said Neelima. “But, now, there is double-regulation—The Wire is acting on its own work but even the State is cracking down on The Wire.”
Selective Action Now A Pattern
In two of the 22 cases we mentioned, the broadcasters were fined Rs 50,000 by the NBDSA, headed by retired Supreme Court justice AK Sikri, for being repeat offenders.
This selective action is part of a pattern.
With disinformation and polarising editorial content so common on pro-BJP channels, Neelima said she was “baffled” by the Delhi police’ action against The Wire.
An analysis of media debates by Neelima’s IPS on 10 June 2022 found 76% of debate time was spent on communal issues. As the NBDSA orders revealed, much of this discourse can be based on innuendo and communal rhetoric.
In 2020, the Supreme Court stopped, after a petition from Neelima and others, Sudarshan News, often called out for its anti-Muslim bigotry and fake news (here, here, here and here), from broadcasting a show that claimed an Islamic conspiracy to flood India’s civil services with Muslims as a prelude to an Islamic takeover of the country.
The Supreme Court said that a message must be sent to the media that “a particular community be targeted”, adding that “the country cannot survive on (sic) such an agenda”.
The channel faced no governmental censure. In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the ministry of information and broadcasting only said that it found the channel’s content to be “not in good taste, offensive and has the likelihood of promoting communal attitudes”.
The ministry only “cautioned” the channel to “be careful in future” and asked the content to be “suitably moderated and modified”.
A closer look at how some of the 22 stories ordered to be taken down by the NBDSA were reported revealed how pro-government channels get away with obviously fake news, even if the police sometimes call them out.
‘No Proper Investigation, False Narrative Created’
On 3 August 2021, according to the NBSDA order in June 2022, Zee News aired a debate around an “exodus” of Hindu families from a neighbourhood called Shiv Mandir colony in the western Uttar Pradesh town of Moradabad.
The “exodus”, the channel claimed, came after 81 Hindu families put up posters titled “community exodus”, expressing their desire to sell their homes. Former Zee News anchor Aman Chopra tweeted a poster of the show, with the hashtag #MoradabadHinduExodus and said that the exodus was caused by zameen jihad, or land jihad.
There was no such exodus, the Moradabad police said. What had happened, the police said, was that the Hindu families were unhappy after two properties were sold to Muslims.
“It is the constitutional right of everyone to live in any part of the country,” the police said.
Zee News aired an hour-long debate on the issue, with the title: “Hindu gharon par mazhabi kabza?” or “Religious capture of Hindu homes?” The show was solely based on quotes from Hindus irked by the prospect of two Muslim families living amongst them. The NBSDA order said that there was “no factual assertion made by the broadcaster” on the issue and that “the broadcaster did not verify the facts”.
“There was no proper investigation conducted which was extremely necessary as the issue raised was of serious nature with serious implications,” said the NBSDA order. “...the programme could disturb the (sic) racial and religious harmony”. The channel, the order said, should have waited for a police clarification before broadcast.
The NBSDA said the show violated the code of ethics and asked the channel to pull down the show from its social platforms “immediately”.
Regulator Takes ‘Strong Objection’ But Only That
Similarly, last November, News18 India broadcast a show “Khaane Mein Thookna, Jihad ya Jahalat?” (Spitting in Food, Jihad or Ignorance?), where the anchor insisted that instances of vendors spitting in the food were a part of a “spit jihad”.
"Will you eat thook naan, thook paratha, thook chicken, thook daal? You are saying this is not about religion,” the anchor of the show was quoted as saying in the complaint filed with the NBDSA.
“What is common between the following names: Naushad, Anwar, Khalid, Shahrukh, Irshad, Mohammad aur Abul Salaam?” asked the anchor. “They are arrested. What is common between them? Their religion is common. Naushad, Anwar, Khalid, Shahrukh, Irshad, Mohammad aur Abul Salaam.”
The anchor showed a series of videos purportedly showing Muslim vendors spitting in the food. However, the NBDSA order said many of these visuals were fake or unverified. In the hearings before the NBDSA, News18India confessed to running fake videos, even after they had previously been fact-checked and found to be false. The channels claimed that “not all videos aired during the broadcast were fake”.
The NBDSA took “strong objection” to the broadcaster’s narrative and added that such narratives “could disturb religious harmony, incite communal passions,” and found the language used by the anchor to be “completely unacceptable”.
The NBDSA, in its June 2022 order, found the show to be violative of the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards and asked News18India to remove the show from their social media platforms “immediately”.
‘Misinformed Viewers, Created False Narratives’
In October 2021, News18India broadcast a show about Muslims offering namaz on the streets of Gurgaon. The anchor of the show asked, "Sadak namaz ke liye hai kya? Sadak par namaz, mazhab ya manmani? Are streets meant for namaz? Namaz on the street, religion or obstinacy?"
The anchor asked why Muslims demolished "thousands of Hindu temples" to build mosques if they wanted to read namaz on the streets.
The NBDSA, in its order, said the channel was creating “a false narrative since it “did not broadcast the fact that the place in which namaz was being offered was a space designated by the Haryana government.” The show, the order said, had “distorted facts and was, therefore, not neutral, accurate and objective.”
“NBDSA raised serious objection to the language used by the anchor in the
impugned programme,” said the order, holding the show to be violative of the Code of Ethics. It ordered the videos taken down "immediately".
Video From Ecuador, Allegations in UP
In May 2021, when a ferocious second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was abating and a vaccine shortage emerged, Zee Hindustan ran a show that accused a “vaccine jihad” as being responsible.
The channel ran a show titled “Kattarpanthiyon se seedha sawaal karne wala bahut bada khulasa: desh mein kon kar raha hai vaccine jihad? (An expose that poses hard questions to fanatics: who is behind this vaccine jihad?)”
The show focussed on a news story that reported how an auxiliary nurse midwife named Niha Khan in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh city had been booked for allegedly throwing away Covid vaccines without administering them.
As evidence, it played an unrelated video from Ecuador, showing a woman inserting a syringe into a man’s arms without vaccine. The video went viral, with many claiming that Khan’s actions were “a conspiracy to discredit the Yogi government”.
Zee Hindustan insinuated that Khan’s actions—as allegedly seen in the video—were an Islamic conspiracy, according to the order: “Saazish ki sanak ya mazhabi junoon (Smells of a conspiracy or religious war?)”; “Nurse ki toolkit me kitni jihadan? (How many female jihadis in a nurse’s toolkit?)”; and “Yogi ki UP me Vaccine Jihad (A vaccine jihad In Yogi’s UP)”.
The NBSDA order criticised the use of the unverified video, and asked the channel to take down the show and issue a clarification since the video had “no connection with the programme.” While the particular show was no longer visible on YouTube, possibly due to the NBDSA’s order, a related show that peddled the allegations continued to be available for public consumption on Zee Hindustan’s YouTube channel garnering over 110,000 views since it was uploaded in May 2021.
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(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist.)