Opinion | Barkha Dutt: India’s Democracy Under Attack By TV News Networks

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When journalist Mohammed Zubair was arrested for a 4-year-old tweet that borrowed a pun from an old movie, on a charge of hurting religious sentiments, Arnab Goswami, a prime-time host at Republic TV, a major network news agency from India, was furious, but not at the attack on freedom of expression that the arrest represented. He was angry with Zubair.

On another network, Times Now (owned by India’s richest newspaper group), a flashy gold band proclaimed an alleged double standard of “#Zubair lobby hypocrisy.” This was the same channel on which Nupur Sharma, spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (since suspended), had made derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad, sparking an international diplomatic spat with the Arab world. Zubair was one of the first to highlight comments and the channel was looking for him.

Surely, in any robust democracy, journalists—or politicians—should not go to jail for comments, no matter how light-hearted or insulting. But many prominent Indian television journalists have shown ugly doublespeak when it comes to the freedoms they are willing to protect. If anyone is a hypocrite, it’s them.

Far from being bulwarks against political attacks on free speech, India’s news channels have become factories of hate. As India turns 75, the country’s television networks preside over the death of journalism.

His carefully constructed primetime narratives align perfectly with right-wing Hindutva politics; in fact, his coarseness often goes several steps further.

His orchestrated intolerance did not even spare the country during the height of the pandemic. When the Tablighi Jamaat, an Orthodox Muslim sect, held a mass gathering in early 2020, a TV channel used the hashtag #CoronaJihad to describe the event. Another chose the visual representation of a Muslim skullcap to convey the dashboard of daily cases.

In July, several media outlets used a similar title, Flood Jihad, to cover a conspiracy that began on social media claiming that flooding in the eastern state of Assam was deliberately caused by Muslims attacking an embankment. Journalism’s duty should have been to investigate these claims and hold the police to account for why four hapless Muslim men were falsely accused. Instead, television stations validated the injustice and amplified their bias.

Newscasters have become actors huffing and puffing in faux indignation. The guests invited to discuss the pressing issues of the day are also carefully integrated into the drama: the more extreme, the better.

Content is built on manufactured dissent, and network broadcasts produce a constant stream of noisy confrontations and screaming. The screen looks like a hydra-headed monster, divided into thousands of postage stamp windows. Speakers are carefully selected for their extreme irrationality. While these shows have their share of extremist Hindus, often clad in saffron robes, it is the Muslim voices in particular that are caricatures, made for television clerics with long beards and small minds chosen to lampoon the community and reinforce the worst stereotypes.

By pitting Hindus against Muslims in a contrived gladiatorial debate, TV news avoids real stories such as rising unemployment and cost of living, floods, and deteriorating public health. Kota Neelima, whose research focuses on how newsletters prioritize topics, found that over a two-year period, religious topics ranked most broadcastsand on some days makeup as much as 76 percent of all content.

Private news broadcasting in India began in the 1990s, when two production houses were allowed to present a 30-minute bulletin each on the government-controlled Doordarshan station. I worked with one and remember how every news script had to be vetted by an officer first before going on the air. As a first-generation broadcast journalist, I was dazzled by the magic of the medium and the immediacy of its energy. In recent years, like many colleagues, I have migrated to the digital space in search of new formats, freshness and greater independence.

Indian broadcast journalism has also been affected by a broken revenue model. With exorbitant running costs, budgets to send reporters into the field have been slashed. On the contrary, talk is cheap. But banality and obsolescence are currently its least heinous offenses.

It is ironic that when Zubair was released on bail, the precedent cited was the one used to bail Goswami, the presenter who defended Zubair’s arrest. Goswami was jailed in 2020 by opponents of the BJP, in connection with a suicide case. His arrest was clearly unfair and wrong, but he has continued to use his platform to demand the prosecution of other journalists. Those who disagree with him are slandered, attacked and threatened on his show.

When The Post added a new slogan under its online masthead in 2017, “Democracy dies in darkness,” some called it “sinister” and “firm hand.”

But in India, democracy is under constant attack every night at 9 pm, under the lights of a television studio.

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