PCI issues bailable warrant against editor of Kannada newspaper over anti-Muslim article

Campaign Against Hate Speech has filed complaints against Vijay Karnataka, Times Now, News18 Kannada, Star of Mysore and Suvarna News.
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In the first such directive in the recent past against a publication in Karnataka, the Press Council of India (PCI) issued a bailable warrant against the editor of Kannada daily newspaper Vijaya Karnataka for not appearing in proceedings against the paper for an article published in March 2020. The complaint against the paper was among five complaints made by the Campaign Against Hate Speech (Hate Speech Beda), a voluntary group of lawyers, writers, activists, which is working to recognise and hold hate speech in the media accountable. 

The group had approached the PCI over an article titled - “ಸತ್ತವರೆಲ್ಲ ಒಂದೇ ಸಮುದಾಯದವರು - ಈಗಲೂ ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ ಹೆಸರಲ್ಲಿ ಗುಂಪು ಸೇರುವುದೇಕೆ?” (“All those who have died (from coronavirus)  are from the same community - Why do they still come together in the name of prayers?”). The PCI has the powers under Section 15 A of Press Council of India Act which states that it shall have the "same powers throughout India as are vested in a civil court while trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908" in matters related to summoning and enforcing the attendance of persons and examining them on oath.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a former member of the PCI between 2009 and 2011, told TNM that that bailable warrant against the editor of Vijaya Karnataka sets a precedent. "Only if a person fails to appear before the PCI after being summoned at least once, can the Council issue a bailable warrant. To my memory, this is the first time the Council has taken such a decision," he said. 

The article in question was published in the March 28 2020 edition of Vijaya Karnataka. It criticised the Muslim community and blamed it for the spread of the coronavirus. The Campaign Against Hate Speech stated that it approached the PCI since such articles created an environment of hate against Muslims and this hate translated into real-life violence against the members of the community. 

Although the complaint was filed ten months ago in May 2020 and two hearings took place, the editors of Vijaya Karnataka did not appear for the hearings, Manavi Atri, a member of the Campaign Against Hate Speech, told TNM. The last hearing was held in February 2021. 

The report in Vijaya Karnataka made sweeping statements about the Muslim community, the complaint said. “All three who died of Corona and most of the infected belong to the same community. Members of the same community have been Lathi charged several times by the police for violating curfew...Hindus and Christians have respected the curfew and stopped visiting temples and Churches. However, members of the mentioned community have been offering Namaz behind closed doors. They're traveling unrestricted. This has led to anxiety among the residents,” read the report by Vijaya Karnataka. 

The complaint against Vijaya Karnataka highlighted that the Muslim community was targeted and conjecture was passed off as facts. Vijaya Karnataka is owned by Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd., who are the publishers of the Times of India.

In a red box published as part of the same article, the report stated,  “Corona terrorist who asked for virus to be spread.” It was in reference to the arrest of Mujeeb Mohammed, a software engineer working with Infosys who put up a Facebook post calling for people to sneeze in public and spread the virus.

The complaint also stated that Mujeeb was deemed guilty even before a trial was conducted. The hearings by the PCI, which are presided by a retired Supreme Court judge, issued orders for a bailable warrant against the editors of the newspaper asking them to appear for the next hearing. The PCI is a statutory body that holds print media accountable and has powers of censuring - barring all government agencies from placing advertisements in the newspaper. 

The PCI examined the case based on a complaint by the Campaign Against Hate Speech, a group formed in early 2020 over concerns about the reportage on the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest. The group was particularly alarmed when young people like Amulya Leona, Ardra Narayanan and Nalini Balakumar were charged with sedition in Karnataka and the reportage about their cases contained hate speech and calls for violence against the young student activists.

The group began trawling through hours of media coverage and found patterns in the hate speech reported. In an exhaustive report published in September 2020, the group said that hate speech was widespread, individuals were defamed, speculation was published without verification and mob justice was encouraged over rigorous news reporting in the Kannada media.

The complaints raised by the group are significant since news media is mostly self-regulated in India and processes to highlight

Complaints against hate speech in TV, newspapers

The complaint against Vijaya Karnataka was among five complaints filed by the campaign in 2020. The group filed a complaint against the Mysuru-based newspaper Star of Mysore for an editorial titled - ‘Bad apples in the basket’ - which similarly attacked the Muslim community. A line in the editorial read, "The nation is currently hosting an annoying 18 percent of its population self-identifying as rotten apples".

The editorial also called for genocide and made multiple references to 'getting rid' of the 'bad apples'. "An ideal solution to the problem created by bad apples is to get rid of them, as the former leader of Singapore did a few decades ago or as the leadership of Israel is currently doing," the editorial read. 

It is to be noted that the Star of Mysore issued an apology for its editorial and termed it a ‘lapse of judgement’.

In addition to the complaints against newspapers, the Campaign Against Hate Speech filed complaints against three news channels - Times Now, News18 Kannada and Suvarna News. The hearings in these cases were held but orders are yet to be issued even though it has been nearly a year since the complaints were filed. The hearings in cases related to television channels are also presided by a retired Supreme Court Judge and are held by News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), a private and voluntary association of news television broadcasters in India. 

The group also filed complaints against seven programmes aired by Suvarna News including three programmes focusing on the Tablighi Jamaat. Four other programmes also attacked the Muslim community particularly targeting the Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi. 

The complaint against News18 Kannada was over a programme titled “Do you know how is Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz which has spread the Coronavirus to the nation?”. Another programme titled “How many from Karnataka attended the Jamaat meeting in Delhi?” was also mentioned in the complaint. 

In particular, the anchor asks, “Did the killer virus arrive from Delhi? Nizamuddin Toxicity,” and says “Initially, there were 45 people then 54 people and now 300 people who attended the Delhi Jamaat meeting” and that “we still need answer for the question which all districts the Delhi’s toxic is being spread from the virus which has already spread among the Muslim community?”

The complaint filed against Times Now was over a programme titled “Is Tablighi Jamaat Wilfully Sabotaging India? | Nation Wants to Know”, which was aired on April 2 2020 which also referred to the Muslim community as ‘super-spreaders’. 

Some of the complaints were documented in an exhaustive report titled ‘Wages of Hate: Journalism in Dark Times’ published in September 2020. The complaints came up for hearing more than 4 months after they were raised and orders are yet to be issued in the cases. 

‘Readers, viewers can initiate action’

The Campaign Against Hate Speech aims to recognise patterns in reportage and pick out instances of hate speech. The group also helps regular newspaper readers and television viewers to initiate action against media outlets reporting hate speech. 

The NBSA, in particular, has a procedure by which complaints against television channels can be filed online as well as in-person in New Delhi. “Newspaper readers and television news viewers can. There is a form uploaded on the website which requires details of the programme, when it was aired and what the violation is,” says Manavi Atri, who is a part of the group.

In the hearings, the complainant is usually given time to present the case while the media outlet is given the time to respond. “The hearings lasted for around an hour and in some cases, we had to translate the content of the reports or programmes from Kannada to English and submit it,” explains Manavi. 

Co-Editor, Free Speech Collective, Geeta Seshu said that newspaper editors often do not appear for hearings by the Press Council of India. "Newspapers weaken the principle of self regulation by not appearing for hearings by a quasi-judicial body. It is rare for the PCI to exercise these powers to summon editors who default hearings. We have been saying for years that the PCI lacks teeth even though it has powers to censure newspapers. Hopefully, this precedent changes that," Geeta Seshu said.

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