The visuals aired by some Kannada TV channels one were not only disrespectful to the actor and his family, they could have easily triggered events that posed a threat to law and order in the city.

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Voices TV Coverage Sunday, October 31, 2021 - 16:19

There is a numbing sadness that has enveloped many of us in Karnataka for the past two days. Actor Puneeth Rajkumar who passed away on Friday, October 29 was not just a star, it always felt like he was one of us. At a time when I’d rather just mourn, I spent time writing this piece because our TV channels not just behaved irresponsibly but also grossly violated the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards. And this must be called out.

At 1 pm on Friday, I saw on Twitter that Puneeth was hospitalised. Shocked, I did what was most natural – switched on the TV. All the channels were reporting on the actor’s health and the fans gathered outside the hospital. The coverage was measured at that time. Even as WhatsApp groups started sharing the news that Puneeth was no more, many channels continued to report that he was critical. I remember being thankful that the coverage was not sensational or disrespectful.

Amidst no official confirmation and mounting despair that Puneeth was no more, we heard that the police were making arrangements to maintain law and order. When the legendary Dr Rajkumar passed away, Bengaluru witnessed large-scale violence, especially from people who didn’t seem to be his fans but only intent on rioting. His family could not even cremate him peacefully. The police were criticised for announcing his death without any preparation. When veteran actor Vishnuvardhan passed away, there was some violence as well although on a much smaller scale. Therefore it’s only expected that the administration wanted to be prepared for any eventuality, especially because this was an unexpected shock. The police and administration must be commended for ensuring that the city was braced for this terrible news.

At 2.25 pm, I switched on the TV again to get an update and was dismayed that channels had announced Puneeth’s death, though there had been no official confirmation. But what angered me was that one channel was showing visuals of Puneeth lying dead on a stretcher. Upset, I switched to another channel and saw they were showing similar visuals. It was disgusting, and I tweeted about the same as did several others.

Also read:

A big star with a big heart: Samyukta, Rishi, Chetan and Raghavendra on Puneeth

Reporter’s diary: How a difficult interview began a professional friendship with Puneeth

Why is this problematic? Two reasons – one, it is distasteful that they chose to disrespect the actor, his privacy and his family’s privacy. Two, such visuals could have easily triggered events that posed a threat to law and order in the city. When the administration was taking care to ensure that the official confirmation happened only after all preparations were done, why announce his passing away? And why show his photos? It’s almost like they wanted someone to act violently.

This is not the first time that Kannada channels are behaving in this manner. During the coverage of the DJ Halli violence in Bengaluru in August 2020, they almost seemed to be egging people on to turn violent. A complaint filed by the Campaign Against Hate Speech at that time stated: “TV9 displayed the dead body of a man shot by the police repeatedly, raising the question of whether broadcasting graphic images of the dead in a sensitive and evolving situation could become a tacit incitement to further violence.”

On Suvarna, the complaint stated: The channel repeatedly stated that the mob was filled with people who had consumed narcotics; the night was termed ‘Rakta Ratri – Night of Blood’; and broadcast harmful stereotypes that malign the two localities as those with a ‘night life’, where drug peddling was a common occurrence.

Also read:

‘Tablighi Virus’, ‘Pakistan devils’: Hate speech in Kannada media coverage documented

Karnataka’s warriors against hate

Broadcasting guidelines violated

I did not switch on the TV again but Twitter users reported that many more disturbing visuals from Puneeth’s hospital bed were shown by the Kannada channels.

The actions by the TV channels were not just disrespectful but also illegal. They violate the Programme and Advertising Code under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. They also violate the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards issued by the News Broadcasters & Digital Association, a self-regulatory body for TV channels. Many channels in Karnataka are members of this association and are bound by its rules.

The Programme and Advertising Code, which all TV channels must follow, has a brief, precise set of rules. In telecasting images of Puneeth’s body without even waiting for official confirmation, the channels violated the following sections:

6(a) Offends against good taste or decency

6 (e) is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote anti-national attitudes

The channels also violated the following from the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards:

6. Privacy: As a rule channels must not intrude on private lives, or personal affairs of individuals, unless there is a clearly established larger and identifiable public interest for such a broadcast. The underlying principle that news channels abide by is that the intrusion of the private spaces, records, transcripts, telephone conversations and any other material will not be for salacious interest, but only when warranted in the public interest.

All the channels that aired visuals of Puneeth on his death bed need reminding of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority’s (NBSA) Specific Guidelines Covering Reportage, which states:

5.1 Broadcasters should exercise discretion and sensitivity when reporting on distressing situations, on grief and bereavement.

The NBSA’s Specific Guidelines for Reporting the Injured and the Ill are mandatory guidelines that have to be rigidly followed while reporting in sensitive situations. According to the guidelines:

No broadcaster shall invade the privacy or violate the dignity of persons who are affected, injured and/or under treatment in hospitals and other similar places. When otherwise justified in public interest, care should be taken to record both audio and video in a way which minimizes intrusion and privacy of the patient. However, in case of objection, by the patient or any other person on his or her behalf, a broadcaster should not do any audio or video recording.

Broadcasting those disturbing visuals violated Puneeth’s and his family’s privacy. The only reason when intrusion in a person’s private life is permissible is if it’s in larger public interest. What larger interest was served here? In fact, it was in public interest to refrain from airing his photos from the hospital. And even if in some removed reality it was in the public interest, then also these guidelines mandate that channels should minimise intrusion into the person’s privacy.

The channel heads must read what the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards says about their role:

“News channels recognize that they have a special responsibility in the matter of adhering to high standards of journalism since they have the most potent influence on public opinion.”

As Karnataka continues to grieve the loss of a dear star, this is the last reminder to all of the media to strictly adhere to in the days to come the NBSA’s Guidelines for telecast of news affecting Public Order, which states:

6.      The dead should be treated with dignity and their visuals should not be shown. Special care should be taken in the broadcast of any distressing visuals and graphics showing grief and emotional scenes of victims and relatives which could cause distress to children and families.

It is time TV channels learn to act responsibly. It is not just TRP or breaking news that matters. It is also time that we viewers call out TV channels for violating the law and their own code of ethics. If not, the channel managements will continue to sensationalise in the race for TRPs.

(With inputs from Manavi Atri)

Vinay Kooragayala Sreenivasa is a Bengaluru-based lawyer and rights activist. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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