While not optimistic, there is hope that opposition alliance’s boycott of 14 TV presenters may lead to some sanity and put an end to lunacy that has infected India’s national media and damaged its credibility
By Iftikhar Gilani
After traveling throughout the eastern Indian state of Bihar to cover the 2015 provincial elections, I checked into a hotel in the capital city of Patna.
Also staying in the same hotel was a senior leader of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and cabinet minister at the time. We met in the lobby, and he invited me to have dinner with him in his suit.
When I joined him after finishing my work, he was sitting on a sofa surfing TV channels and watching prime time debates. He had a remote control in his hand and was constantly busy with two phones.
It took me only a few moments to notice that the minister was talking to the channels’ presenters on the live broadcast.
He was constantly giving them instructions like a producer or editor. Interestingly, he was not participating in the broadcast himself, but the presenter was actively listening to him through the earphones which the producers usually use to instruct the presenters.
I remember on one channel there was a discussion on an issue related to Pakistan and Kashmir. The minister told the moderator to heat up the debate a bit, ask the Pakistani guest this sharp question, and after a while, when it got too hot, he instructed, lower the temperature. “Cool down a bit, turn to another guest,” he advised.
Similarly, on another channel, an opposition leader was being targeted. He was giving similar instructions and telling the presenter a series of questions to ask the opposition leader.
Through these debates, the minister and BJP leader was shaping public opinions and molding the prime-time debate to suit his party.
-Opposition announces boycott
When India’s recently formed 26-party opposition alliance called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) announced it was boycotting 14 TV news anchors and its leaders would not participate in their broadcasts, I recalled that among them were the anchors whose reins were held by the minister.
While it is true that the Indian media never crosses red lines against the government and avoids asking questions about national security, after 2014 it has become almost a mouthpiece for the ruling party. Since the Hindu nationalist party’s agenda is to spread hatred against minorities, it clearly toes the line.
The spokesman of the largest opposition party Congress, Pawan Khera, said that they have not banned or boycotted the presenters of TV, but he called it a kind of “non-cooperation movement.” He said that the opposition alliance will not cooperate with those who spread hatred.
“We also have the freedom not to participate in this crime of spreading hate,” he said.
Samajwadi Party spokesman Abbas Haider said: “These moderators are full of prejudice. When they let you speak, they confront you before you can finish a sentence and then try to trap you. They are outright biased.”
However, among these 14 presenters, Arnab Goswami of Republic TV is the only one who also owns the station.
The rest of the presenters are employees of the stations and spread hatred and bad behavior in league with the producers, editors, and owners of the stations. In the event of a change of government in India, they will not even take a minute to switch sides.
The use of TV channels to dupe the opposition began during the previous Congress Party government. In November 2013, the then opposition had opened a front against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government as several corruption cases were exposed, coming to light day by day.
The parliament session was marked by turmoil every day. One day, the then minister for parliamentary affairs, Rajeev Shukla, told reporters that he had found an antidote to the opposition protests. He said that he would make a big announcement in the afternoon, so big that there would be no space for opposition reports in any channel or newspaper for the next few days.
When all reporters were speculating about the nature of this big announcement, it came from Mumbai in the afternoon.
Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar announced that he was retiring from the sport. It was really a masterstroke to the extent that no media outlet had time for political or other pressing issues in the next few days. Shukla was also a member of the powerful Indian Cricket Board. An igneous way to divert public attention from pressing issues.
Following the boycott of the presenters, some leaders of the opposition alliance are also calling for a crackdown on the owners of the stations. Opposition parties lead governments in 11 provinces. If they implement an economic boycott of channels that spread hate, it will be difficult for the owners to run the channels, but that seems like a far-fetched idea since the owners are well connected even within the opposition parties.
The boycotting of news channels in fact was introduced by the BJP, when it instructed its spokesperson to stop attending debates on the relatively liberal NDTV channel, which was recently bought by the Adani Business Group.
-No time for pressing issues
A news website, Newslaundry survey shows that presenters who were boycotted spent most of their time on Hindu-Muslim debates. They targeted Muslims and Dalits. There was no time in their broadcasts for issues such as price rise and inflation. Umesh Devgan, for example, who was boycotted by the opposition alliance, never made a broadcast about the economic situation, unemployment, and inflation.
A survey conducted by Amity University in 2021 found that the two main private channels, Times Now and India Today, spent zero and 0.2% of their airtime, respectively, discussing health issues, even though COVID -19 had swept the world. Similarly, Times Now had no time for agriculture and farmers’ issues in prime time, while India Today spent 0.4%.
Never more than 10% of TV ‘s prime time is spent on price increases and inflation, an issue that has been shown to generate negative sentiment against governments around the world.
Author and Institute of Perception Studies director Kota Neelima analyzed 25,786 seconds from 10 channels, five English and five Hindi. She found that the most discussed topic was the war in Ukraine at 40% and 24% of the time was spent on Hindu-Muslim feuds. These included the hijab ban, the Kashmir files, etc.
News about Prime Minister Modi took up another 21% of the total time. Finally, only 7% of the total airtime was spent discussing the price hike.
“In most of the TV channels, this was not even a marginal issue,” states an article published by The Wire.in.
After analyzing millions of seconds of footage of televised debates, Neelima found that Indian broadcasters were deliberately shielding the government from difficult issues.
“When the media is involved in power, it is no longer free or meaningful. The media should not have masters. This is a battle that TV journalists must fight and win every day in prime time,” she said.
Aakar Patel, former head of Amnesty International’s India office, had studied the coverage of India’s two main English news channels for his book.
At a time when the Chinese army had invaded and the economy was contracting because of the 2021 lockdown, Times Now had 33 prime-time debates criticizing the opposition’s actions. There were zero debates about the economic recession.
In the same three months, Republic TV had 47 debates criticizing the opposition’s actions.
On June 16, India announced that it had lost 20 soldiers who were beaten to death in hand-to-hand combat with the Chinese in Ladakh. Daily covid infections rose from 2,300 cases on May 1 to more than 57,000 daily cases on July 31.
A few days later, the Indian Journalism Review published another memo that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had distributed to television stations instructing them on what to focus on.
The note read: “Modi effect loud and clear. Taming expansionist China is a Herculean task, but the right policies and actions can produce excellent results.”
Another note read: “China was pushed back, by a united nation led by a leader who acted at the forefront. Through decisive military, economic and strategic moves, Prime Minister Modi pushed China back.”
In a study published in late 2020, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and data analyst Vihang Jumle examined Republic TV’s content.
They wrote in the journal Caravan: “Our conclusion was clear: Republic TV debates are consistently biased in favor of the Modi government and its policies, as well as the BJP’s ideology. Even worse, these debates rarely raised some of the most pressing issues affecting Indians, such as the state of the economy, education, or health.”
Some numbers are staggering, though not surprising. Nearly 50% of the Republic’s political debates TV criticized the opposition, but there was not a single debate that could be classified as positive for the opposition.
Asked about the evidence that some moderators and TV broadcasters are acting as an extension of the government, Patel replies that the evidence is clear to anyone who wants to look for it.
“There is no question that the opposition is right to boycott the presenters of TV. But it is being asked by much of the media to play a rigged game. It has every right to refuse to go along with it,” he said.
When it comes to World Press Freedom Index of 2023, India ranked 161st among the 180 countries with a score of 36.62. In 2022, India’s rank was 150.
One hopes, though one is not optimistic, that this action will correct to some extent the insanity that has infected India’s national media and damaged its credibility, which will be difficult to restore. But it looks like a Herculean task.