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Media bias & fake news in India: The origins

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2020 has been a difficult year for people across the globe. We were hit with a global pandemic and then came natural disasters. As recent as yesterday, the hot topic is the “peaceful protests” in America. Having seen a whole wide view as an outsider and having seen how the left has been hijacking social movements to push their agenda, I was left to think about these very harmful biases that are very much existent in our society.

But an even more apt aspect of the issue has been how the media has been aiding and abetting these radical leftists by whitewashing their crimes through victimization. Amidst this, a friend of mine, suggested I watch Hoaxed, an American documentary on fake news by Mike Cernovich, an independent journalist. At the end of it, I was left wondering about this rot that similarly exists in the Indian media scenario. Though spoken against over and over, and pinpointed by independent and unbiased media platforms, the perpetrators of fake news roam untouched and unapologetic. It was hence necessary to pull out a chronology or at least establish an origin to the hate that we see today.

Although in the US, fake news is said to have originated during World War I with a committee being formed to influence public thoughts by the government, that is not the case in India. The first newspaper was the Bengal Gazzette started by James Hickey. Up until the freedom struggle gained traction, newspapers mostly published in British interest. The onslaught of independence movement brought journalists and national interests together. During this time, journalists used it to further the freedom struggle in national interest, which if happened today, would be termed as toxic nationalism. However, things changed after independence.

Under Congress rule, press was more or less controlled in terms of content. This is evident in the case of the 1962 India China war of which reports were declassified only in 2014. The journalist, Neville Maxwell, in the declassified reports put the blame on Nehru, the then Prime Minister for being on the offensive front. During this time, multiple press organizations were established which increased competition. When there no longer existed a common social issue to combat or an common oppressor to fight against, media saw decreased business. According to (Desai, 2011) post emergency media has largely been corporate driven. This is where the modern day journalism sees its origins.

The world has seen violence induced due to mindless media reports and so has India. The most noticeable of all media incited violence may be the three incidents of 1947 Jabalpur riots, the 1969 Gujarat riots and later the 1980 Moradabad riots. Media misreporting and fake news has not always been against Hindus. Reporting based on rumors and hearsay cost many Muslim lives earlier and incited communal violence in all three of the above mentioned cases. The Mandwi massacre in Tripura in the year 1980 is an example of ignorance and media bias. A journalist and local (Subir Bhaumik), alleged that one sided news reporting was done on the issue. The reports were manipulated to show only the anti-non tribal riot while the sufferings of the majority community at their hands was conveniently ignored. The mainstream media refuses to side with the local population for their fight against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The ignorance runs even today as the NE government’s support for NRC has been condemned in popular media reports suggesting it as a potential tool for anti-immigrant riots.

Another popular example that occurred shortly after, was that of the 1984 Sikh massacre endorsed by the Gandhi dynasty. Much prior to the event, the coverage of Operation Blue star by the media was carried out such that the entire Sikh community was held responsible (Ahmed, 2010). Neither in popular media now, nor at the time did the blame fall of those who started it. The killing of Indira Gandhi resulted in media showcasing the entire Sikh community as villains followed by the very unnecessary validation by Rajiv Gandhi. This worsened the situation and ended up killing an estimated 3000 Sikhs in the violence that followed. 1984 had yet another big breaking story: the Bhopal gas tragedy. Here, although unlike other cases, the result wasn’t mob violence or riots but rather silence; silence that would last for years. Under the Congress leadership, local media remained mum about the political failures that led to the incident while international media let loose Union carbide stating India’s lack of safety standards (Livemint, 2014). Though millions of dollars worth funds were provided for the cause of the victims of the tragedy, to this very day, they seek justice. Yet another case human misinterpretation of media that has lead to violence is that of Karnataka in 1986. “Mohammad the Idiot” was a short story published a decade earlier in Kerala. But when it was republished in Herald in Karnataka, things didn’t go well. Local Muslim leaders misinformed the public gathered in mosques that the story pokes fun at their prophet and send the mob into a frenzy. The following riots saw the killing of 15 civilians while 1 rioter was shot dead by the police, and another 50 were left injured as a result.

In 1992, there was a dramatic shift in the media scenario. With the liberalization of media and opening up of cable services, foreign media found its foothold in Indian journalism. 1992 also marked the beginning of modern day Hinduphobia with the Babri Masjid demolition. And then came 1999 and brought along with it, journalism driven by agenda and its kick-starter, Barkha Dutt of Star News. After all the blunder regarding the Tiger Hill war coverage was done, never once did she apologize for the mistakes. Which kind of brings us to think whether anything can be passed off as news if you’re a journalist? Seems like it. Although, it should have been the Star news highlighted in popular media, whenever media gaffes in war coverage is talked about, reality says otherwise. Any article you read currently, regarding reporting during Kargil war throws blame on the reporters and channels for evoking nationalism in the common population while demonizing Pakistan. Kargil war also points out the international bias against India. In a book written by Francois Gautier in 2001, he says that BBC reported against Indian sentiments and that its left leaning bias couldn’t be more clear. He also adds that NGO’s, western press and human rights groups in India have been manipulating Indian opinion and that Indian media is the biggest enemy of the country influenced by communists, Muslims, christian missionaries and Congress for vote bank politics. Although written in 2001, it is a matter of shame that the scenario still remains the same. Later in 2001, the Kutch earthquake demanded utmost attention. This can be seen as a turning point in the beginning of an anti-Modi narrative as many liberal media sees it as a point in the rise in PM Modi’s popularity and political career.

2002 was a horrifying year, but it’s also the year that the media decided to tarnish the image of a rising politician for decades. International as well as regional media was unstoppable regarding their coverage of the riots. Although one must question as to where did all the fervor go when it came to reporting about the Godhra train burning that started off the entire riot. Several media has several versions to report on this issue. Likes of The Guardian and The Telegraph reported that a skirmish started by Hindus led to Muslims burning the stopped train, while according to ZeeTV report, eyewitnesses have seen the train, after being stopped with the alarm chain from inside, being stoned and lit from the outside. The media was fast enough to call the event as being a state sponsored violence against a particular community while the then CM Modi and the Gujarat govt was declared anti-Muslim by popular media. A hounding example and an fateful victim of this had been Maya Kodnani. In the immediate aftermath of the Gujarat riots, NGO’s and left leaning media assisted by the power thirsty UPA government created havoc leading to relaxation of rules regarding filing of FIR’s. As a result of this, in 2008, after a long term of 6 years of the occurring, Maya Kodnani among several BJP politicians were listed in several FIR’s. It is alleged, according to Swarajya Mag, that NGO’s at the time bulk printed complaints to be filed and asked names to be put on by complainants as per their wish. As if Zakia’s direct accusation of the CM wasn’t enough, several baseless cases were formed. It isn’t coincidental that all this happened while Congress was enjoying its second term win at the center. When finally the witnesses who were tidied up by likes of Setalvad, couldn’t stand valid in the court, the case collapsed and Maya Kodnani was acquitted. But as expected, main stream media like NDTV came up with “Amit Shah bails out Kodnani” kind of stories linking it altogether to BJP. A bogus case just like that of Col. Purohit and Ishrat Jahan was blown out of proportions to aid their narrative, all the while forgetting that it was the Modi government in the first place that suggested a death penalty for Kodnani upon her conviction.

Contrasting stands can be found on part of the media and the left liberal ecosystem to prove their hypocrisy. Media agitation against the majority has not been recent. During the 2002 riots, Editors Guild and several mainstream media houses condemned the Sandesh‘s biased news coverage in favor of Hindus. But what happened to these flagbearers of ethical journalism post 2014? In 1985, 1968, 1987, the selective reporting of Hindu-Muslim issues were highlighted by several studies. Newspapers at the time were criticized for not reporting the names of Muslim victims and only highlighting the names if the victims were Hindu. It is only reasonable that this must be called out. However, when NDTV censors out names of Hindu victims and the likes of The Hindu replaces perpetrator names so as to make Hindus look like the villains, why isn’t the ecosystem calling this out? PUCL (People’s Union of Civil Liberties) in 2002 called out a newspaper for the headline, “70 Hindus burnt alive in Godhra” (Cole, 2006), which is not even half as sinister as the headlines being run by the leftist media in the current times. When Congress MP Ehsan Jafri was cut limb by limb by the agitated mob, media couldn’t shut up about it and shouldn’t as well. But the same so called unbiased media was eerily silent when the same was done to IB officer Ankit Sharma and Dilwar Singh in the 2020 Delhi riots by Tahir Hussain aided by Khalid Saifi and Umar Khalid. Not only were the media fast enough to point out “police brutality” but also whitewashed Saifi’s actions by accusing the police of brutality against an “activist”. Moreover, the entire anti-Hindu Delhi riot was carefully painted out to be an anti-Muslim pogrom by the leftist media both nationally and internationally. They hounded PM Modi for years and continue to do so but despite the gruesome violence and loss of lives in the Delhi riots, Arvind Kejriwal remains the “model politician” (even despite all his links to all major hate mongers in the recent times: Amanatullah Khan, Khalid Saifi, Tahir Hussain and the list goes on). Anti-majority stand have been popular not just in India but also worldwide-CNN, NYT, QZ, WP have all been accused of continuous minority appeasement. It is no different in India with increasing number of news portals against right wing politics and activists.

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