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News watchdog slams ‘media trial’ of Umar Khalid, orders Zee, India TV, Aaj Tak to remove videos

Zee News, Zee Hindustan, India TV & Aaj Tak ‘violated principles of impartiality, objectivity’ in five 2020 telecasts, News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority has said.

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New Delhi: Criticising the “media trial” of Delhi riots-accused Umar Khalid and noting its “serious objection to sensationalist taglines and tickers”, the News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) has ordered news channels Zee News, Zee Hindustan, India TV, and Aaj Tak to remove all videos and links to five broadcasts dating back to 2020.

In its 13 June order, the NBDSA, an independent body that reviews and adjudicates complaints about private broadcasters and is headed by Justice A.K. Sikri (Retd), was responding to a complaint filed in November 2020 against these channels for allegedly violating the NBDSA’s code of ethics.

The complaint, filed by activist Indrajeet Ghorpade, pertained to how some news programmes portrayed “allegations as facts” about Khalid as well as Sharjeel Imam, another accused in the February 2020 Delhi riots, which broke out in the wake of protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The complainant also questioned the use of the term “tukde-tukde gang” to describe Khalid “and others who hold liberal views”.

The complaint stated that both Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid were called “terrorists” and the main conspirators of the riots based on a Delhi Police chargesheet, without giving any airtime to those who were “critical” of the investigation.

The channels in their responses — mentioned in the NBDSA order — have claimed that the complaints against them were not valid as they were merely airing information listed by the Delhi police in its chargesheet.

India TV further said that the complainant had “misunderstood” or not watched the contested telecast. On the allegation that it aired a “one-sided debate”, Aaj Tak submitted that its show was “entirely unbiased” and the views of all the panellists were taken into consideration.

The media channels also cited freedom of the press in reporting on matters of public interest.

However, the NBDSA order, signed by chairperson Justice Sikri, stated that the “impugned broadcasts” went beyond what was permissible in the “realm of journalistic freedom” guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.


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‘Line crossed’ by channels

In its 13 June decision, the NBDSA observed that the “common thread” in complaints about certain broadcasts of the four channels was the “alleged media trial” of Umar Khalid. Further, all the programmes in question centred on discussing the supplementary chargesheet filed by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police.

Noting that the news channels were within their rights to air news about the riots and the alleged involvement of Umar Khalid, the body said it was a different matter to treat the charges as if they had already been proved in a court of law.

“[T]he moment this line is crossed and the message conveyed is that Umar Khalid has been proved guilty or there is sufficient evidence against him to prove him guilty, it would become media trial which is not permissible in law,” the order said.

The NBDSA also took exception with “sensationalist taglines and tickers” that “gave an impression that the accused had already been found guilty”. The order cited examples like “Umar Khalid is the mastermind of Delhi riots”, “He burnt Delhi, he is not a comrade, he is a rioter”, “In the name of Muslims, Umar-Sharjeel plan riot”, and so on.

While some of the offending taglines and tickers did use question marks rather than bald statements, the order said that this was not sufficient.

“If all taglines were with question marks along with specific contents that these were charges only… the matter would have been different… [W]hen [programmes are] viewed in entirety, the broadcasters cannot deny the fact that these taglines create a certain perception amongst the public,” the order said.

In view of this, the broadcasts “violated the principles of impartiality, objectivity and neutrality enshrined under the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards and Guidelines issued by the authority,” the order added.

Advising the channels to “exercise restraint” and not use hashtags or taglines that “project the accused in a manner as if he/she is guilty”, the NBDSA ordered them to remove all videos, including on YouTube, and links to the telecasts within seven days.

‘An agenda to the debate’

Based on separate complaints, the NBDSA also issued a common order this week about a Zee News programme titled “Kudrat bahana hain, Muslim abaadi badana hain?”, which translates roughly to: “Nature is an excuse, increasing Muslim population is the goal?”

The complainants had averred that the show was “factually incorrect” and “spread bigotry and hate” by suggesting that Muslims were “responsible for population explosion” and bringing “aafat (doom)” to India.

The channel denied these allegations and said it had conducted a “fair and objective news debate and analysis on the criticism of the ‘two-child norm’ campaign launched by the government of Uttar Pradesh, from the leaders of the opposition parties”.

The NBDSA, however, pointed out that if debate on the two-child policy had been the intention, a “more neutral and objective” tagline could have been displayed.

Upon its review, the authority concluded: “[T]he manner in which the topic was framed, and the language used clearly pointed to the fact that there was an agenda to the debate. This was also clear from the images that were displayed…”

The NBDSA decided that the broadcast violated its code of ethics relating to impartiality and directed that the video and links of the show should be removed immediately.

Last year, during the farmers’ protests, the NBDSA had directed the same channel to remove all videos and debates that linked farmers to “Khalistanis”.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)


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