Why These Indians Want You To Fight Hate On The News
It’s easier to spread hate speech than to fight it, but some Indians are holding accountable those that were disseminating it.
It’s easier to spread hate speech than to fight it, but some Indians decided it was important to hold accountable those that were disseminating it. They began in Karnataka, the state in which they were based and one which has often been called the Hindutva laboratory of the south. They began around the time the hate came pouring into their living rooms.
“Has Delhi Jamaat become Wuhan of Karnataka?” “Muslims of the state too infected with Corona.” “Nizamuddin Markaz has spread the Corona to the nation.” “Did the killer virus arrive from Delhi? Nizamuddin toxicity.” “You need to notice that entire nation has been affected by Corona due to that one congregation.”
As we brace ourselves for the third Covid-19 wave, we all remember a version of these familiar, hateful lines from a little over a year ago, aired on many television channels after the Indian government blamed a Tablighi Jamaat gathering for a spike in cases, setting off a blaze of Islamophobia.
It took more than half a dozen High Courts and the Supreme Court to acquit attendees of the meet held in Nizamuddin in March 2020. Many of them were international visitors who found themselves under arrest, provoking the Bombay High Court to remind us about our ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (guest is God) philosophy.
A month before the Tablighi meet, lawyers, activists, academics, teachers, and engineers in Bengaluru had gotten together to form the Campaign Against Hate Speech, in response to traditional news media’s biased coverage of the Citizenship Amendment Act dissenters, especially younger women, says Manavi Atri, a 25-year-old anti-discrimination lawyer. Atri signed up to be part of the collective when she was a law student.
When the Islamophobia began spreading like wildfire, the group turned their attention to the anchors and television channels leading the charge in Karnataka. Thanks to the efforts of @HateSpeechBeda, as they are known on Twitter, the National Broadcasting Standards Authority issued orders against three channels on June 16 for their hateful coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Muslim community, some of which I’ve quoted above.
In the past year, Campaign Against Hate Speech has filed nearly 40 complaints with self-regulatory, statutory media bodies (sometimes labeled as toothless by cynics) such as the NBSA and the Press Council of India; with committees constituted under the Cable Television Network Act; the nodal fact check unit in Karnataka; cyber complaints; and complaints to the Director General of Police against individual elected representatives (such as Bharatiya Janata Party MP Shobha Karandlaje) for spreading hate.
Members of the collective will likely be tuning in to News18 Kannada and Suvarna News just before prime time on June 23.
Both channels have been asked to pay a fine and News18 Kannada was also told to issue an apology before the 9 pm news. The third channel, Times Now, was censured.
“The nature of hate speech has become very detrimental to individual safety and community safety,” says Atri. “It identifies people by their protected characteristics of gender, religion, caste, sexual orientation; it’s given more space [in media] and is directly threatening to life and personal liberty.”
In February 2020, around the time the collective was formed, news channels repeatedly broadcast death threats issued against two Karnataka students, Amulya Leone and Ardra Narayan, by fringe-right wing groups. Sri Ram Sena’s Sanjeev Maradi declared a bounty of Rs 10 lakh for anyone who would ‘encounter’ the anti-nationals. Broadcasting this death threat, Suvarna News called it a ‘warning’.
“Active incitement of hatred by media houses across the country against dissenting individuals, particularly those charged with sedition, has become a deeply disturbing tendency in reportage,” Campaign Against Hate Speech said about such incidents in a report last year.
A Tool Kit For All Indians
Swathi Shivanand, a researcher and part of this collective, believes that news organisations need lessons in how to control hate speech.
“Hate speech has always existed but we’ve really had to confront it in the last few years. The pandemic foregrounded hate speech as an abusive phenomenon to take note of,” she says. “Elected representatives will say provocative things but how does the media represent it? Are you going to air it without saying it’s controversial, it’s hate speech, this person has a history of such hate speech?”
Atri’s pleased that the NBSA orders recognised that the damage done by the news channels is difficult to repair, and that the statutory body agreed hate speech dehumanises and results in vigilante violence. For instance, the order against News18 Kannada says, “NBSA took strong objection to use of the word ‘these people’ to refer to the Tablighis.”
Real change will happen when consumers of Indian news demand more authentic coverage. “We do have a right to a free and fair media,” says Shivanand. “We shouldn’t be just passive consumers of news, turn it off if we feel disgusted. News organisations owe it to us to not air a politician’s hate speech without any perspective.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.