One’s diet is not only what one eats. It is also what one watches, what one listens to, what one reads, and the people one hangs around with. In the contemporary context, mainstream media – especially many news channels – act as the primary supplier of the day’s politics. But the dilemma occurs when these platforms propagate ideologies and personal opinions as facts, all without any kind of disclaimer.
India recently slipped two places – it is now 142 out of 180 – in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Discussing the dip, one of the founding editors of The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, noted that this is primarily because many Indian news channels have become state propaganda mouthpieces, promoting religious polarisation and hatred in pursuit of the political agenda of the ruling state party.
The events of the last few years have proven this to be true. Endangering journalism, media channels have begun an open display of bigotry and hate crimes against Muslims, the Bahujan community and other minorities.
Hate crimes against minorities spiked in India after the BJP came to power in 2014. Apart from the significant increase in legal incarcerations of Muslims, dozens of Muslim men have lost their lives on the streets of the country after being attacked or lynched by Hindu mobs. Many were lynched on the mere suspicion of eating beef. Besides playing into the hands of the political intentions behind such communal hatred, most news channels amplified these lynching incidents by tagging the victims as ‘beef eaters and exporters’ in an attempt to justify the killings as ‘gau raksha‘ or ‘cow protection.’
These are not the only incidents where mainstream media ought to hang its head in shame. The fourth volume of former president Pranab Mukherjee’s memoirs, The Presidential Years: 2012-2017, revealed that the Uri surgical strike in 2016 conducted across the border by the Indian forces was a normal military operation. However, through the well-designed and over-emphasised publicity by news channels, the operation was displayed to be as something even bigger than the 1971 War with Pakistan. It was made to seem as though it was government that had ‘won’, according to the narrative that was nurtured at the time.
The overplay of the surgical strikes under the Central government intended to have a positive impact on the BJP’s electoral prospects in the then forthcoming 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab. And with the party’s historic win in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand soon after, the party unquestionably bore fruits of the propaganda-packed publicity Indian citizens were treated to day after day.
Similarly, the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizenship (NRC) in the country are a case in point. News channels only highlighted violence that broke out in some protests and claimed how large mobilisation of Muslims makes violence inevitable. However, it was far from the on-ground reality.The students of Jamia Millia Islamia protested peacefully for several days before things took a violent turn when students were brutally beaten up by the police.
The protest by thousands of Muslim women in Shaheen Bagh is an example of peaceful demonstrations. Likewise, several peaceful protests – involving hardly any violence – took place with lakhs of participants in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Northeast India. These hardly received any attention from mainstream media houses.
We saw the practice of demonising Muslims on display yet again when the Delhi riots took place in February 2020. The media failed to question police inaction and the state’s failure to curb the violence that took place in Delhi over three days, even as it continued on its charade of blaming anti-CAA protestors for the violence and playing down many provocative speeches made by right-wing leaders. This was despite the fact that of the 53 people killed, two-thirds were Muslims. A strand of conspiracy theories were built around the anti-CAA protests and protestors were quickly labelled ‘anti-Hindu’, ‘anti-nationals’, ‘jihadis’ and ‘Naxals’.
Subsequently, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in India saw blame for the spread of the virus being laid at the feet of the Tablighi Jamaat. A high-decibel campaign of ‘Corona Jihad’ was driven by the Indian media, resulting in an unimaginable socio-economic boycott and violence. This campaign led to immense verbal and psychological torture against many Muslims, their association with the Tablighi Jamaat notwithstanding.
Nonetheless, the Bombay high court order quashing the FIRs against Tablighi Jamaat members on August 21, 2020 found no special mention on the very same news channels that had screamed themselves hoarse. The Aurangabad bench of Bombay HC said that Jamaatis were chosen as the scapegoats to give an indirect warning to Indian Muslims protesting against the CAA. In December 2020, the Delhi HC acquitted all foreigners accused in the Tablighi Jamaat case. Soon after, the Patna HC too quashed the FIRs against 18 foreign nationals, historically noting that “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 in India. There was virtually persecution against these foreigners”.
Additionally, even the word ‘love’ has not been allowed to escape from used to propagate communal hatred. For this, ‘love’ now stands hyphenated with ‘jihad’. The media has certainly acted in a manner to let this term gain currency among the masses, especially after the Uttar Pradesh government passed an ordinance against ‘unlawful or forced conversion’ – specifically of a Hindu woman by a Muslim man. Even the anchors who were critical of the ordinance repeatedly used the phrase ‘love jihad’, normalising the use of the notorious term among the viewers.
Considering the above mentioned cases, it seems evident that the media, the fourth pillar of democracy, has simply become a pillar of the ruling party – of its ideologies and opinions. By eagerly picking up the propaganda baton, mainstream media channels amplify particular angles of multi-dimensional stories with pre-defined conclusions.
It appears as if the media, barring a few independant media houses and a handful of newspapers, does not want the people to hear or read any criticism of the government and its policies and ideologies. The government’s control over most means of communication and its wrath towards its critics further ensures this. Indian media houses have become a victim of self-censorship with their increasingly rampant ties with corporate firms that have vested interest and investments by politicians in their assets, leading to compromises with the authenticity and freedom. Many people tend to ignore these inescapable influences of news and the ways in which it is presented to the masses based on their own political decisions and voting patterns.
The media is an essential organ of any democracy. It must not be used as a means to propagate an ideologically-affiliated agenda of anyone. Only a free media, capable of critical and independent thinking, can ensure a healthy and peaceful society.
Adil Amaan is a legal fellow at Karwan-e-Mohabbat (Delhi), with a focus on human rights and hate crimes.