'No accountability': Kannada news channels get away with hate speech, activists say

Karnataka-based group, Campaign Against Hate Speech had filed 17 complaints against Kannada news channels in district and state-level committees in 2021, but have received no acknowledgement.
Mamatha Hegde, Dighvijay news anchor
Mamatha Hegde, Dighvijay news anchor
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'Conversion is scarier than Terrorism! Do you know how much money is made when a Hindu converts to Christianity?’ – This was the title of a programme that aired on Kannada channel Dighvijay 24x7 News in March 2021, where the show’s anchor Mamatha Hegde discussed ‘religious conversions’.

The programme even had an advisory for viewers on what to do when a Christian priest comes home. The ominous-sounding anchor tells viewers, "Many do not know what should be done when a priest comes home, please call the police and give a complaint. Tell the police that they are trying to convert. If ten people get punished, then the 11th person will not come. If we do not show courage, if we do not protect our religion, then none of this will stop."

That same month, Asianet Suvarna News aired four programmes that alleged that Christians carry out conversions using money and fraudulent means. The channel claimed that a sting operation would demonstrate how the Christian missionaries converted Hindus in Hosadurga and other parts of Karnataka. The supposed basis of this programme was the alleged conversion of MLA Goolihatti Shekhar’s mother Puttamma. 

The news anchor ended the programme by claiming that lakhs of people had similarly converted in Hosadurga. “Is this only her story? We did a reality check in Hosadurga, and we saw that people have converted in lakhs. I am not saying thousands but lakhs,” the anchor said. However, no evidence or sources were quoted to back these claims. Seven months after the programme was aired, a survey by the Hosadurga tehsildar found that all the believers who attend prayers in the five churches in the taluk do so voluntarily and nobody was coerced.

These are just a couple of examples of the kind of programmes spreading communal hatred that have been aired on Kannada channels over the last year. This, at a time when there have been an unprecedented number of attacks on Christian institutions and churches in the state. 

In April 2021, a Karnataka-based volunteer group – Campaign Against Hate Speech – had filed complaints with the District Level Monitoring Committee for Private Television Channels, against new channels like Dighvijay 24x7 News, to hold them and the anchors accountable over the hate speech in their coverage. The group, made up of lawyers, activists, and academicians, filed 17 complaints in total against Kannada news channels including Public TV, Suvarna TV, News18 Kannada and TV9 Kannada, as well as English news channels like Times Now. All they received in response was an acknowledgement in two of the cases.

That same year, the group had filed complaints with the national-level body News Broadcasters Standards Association (NBSA), over biased coverage of the coronavirus pandemic where members of Tablighi Jamaat, as well as the Muslim community, were targeted. This led to Times Now being censured and two Kannada channels — News18 Kannada and Suvarna News — being fined.

However, when it came to the issue of the programmes around alleged conversions that spread communal hatred, many of the news channels like Dighvijay 24x7 News, BTV News, ETV News and Raj TV Kannada escaped censure as they are not a part of self-regulatory bodies like the NBSA. 

"We filed 17 complaints with district and state level monitoring committees which are mandated to check the coverage on private channels but there was no action taken on any of the complaints," Manavi Atri from the Campaign Against Hate Speech tells TNM.

The District Level Monitoring Committee and State Level Monitoring Committee were set up based on a 2019 Karnataka High Court order. The High Court directed the state government to constitute committees at various levels to monitor content on television channels. The High Court also stated that a control room should be set up with a nodal officer in charge who will receive complaints from the public about content on television channels. Manavi says that the failure of the committees to take up the 17 complaints against news channels is a contempt of the court's orders. "This means that few channels exercise absolute powers with no regulatory mechanisms. They are free to air whatever they want as 'news'," Manavi adds. 

The volunteer group had trawled through hours of media coverage and found that on many occasions, private Kannada news channels published speculation without verification and encouraged mob justice over rigorous news reporting.

The complaint against Dighvijay 24x7 News' coverage of the issue of religious conversions noted that the anchor Mamatha Hegde insinuated falsehoods and called for Hindus to inculcate a sense of hostility against minority religions. 

As per the complaint, the anchor insinuated that religious conversions are illegal, which is not the case. She insinuated that there was always fraud and inducement involved, which was not proven. She made claims to show that Christians are outsiders but made no references to the sources of these claims. "Throughout the programme, the anchor uses videos that contain violent acts against Christians and suggests it as a suitable response to the alleged ‘fraudulent conversion’,” the complaint stated.

Dighvijay 24x7 News is owned by Vijay Sankeshwar of VRL Media, who is a former BJP MP. The channel is among a number of Kannada channels that appear to be free of regulatory checks, as they are not a part of national level regulatory bodies like the News Broadcasters Standards Association (NBSA) or the News Broadcasters' Federation (NBF). 

It is important to note, that there were at least 39 attacks on Christian believers in Karnataka in 2021, as per a PUCL report. Crucially, this report noted that often police, and in some cases, media personnel in the guise of doing an investigative report, colluded with Hindutva groups to carry out the attacks. 

“The coverage of these incidents by news channels built public opinion against the fundamental rights of the people who converted to Christianity and viewed them as criminals, but there is no mechanism to hold the news channels accountable for it," adds Manavi. 

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