Telugu channels demonise LGBTQIA+ persons on air, let off with just a warning

The channels had not only sensationalised the news, but had also broadcast visuals of LGBTQIA+ persons, violating their privacy, and outing them without their consent.
A person watching a Telugu news channel
A person watching a Telugu news channel

Two Telugu news channels, TV9 Telugu and Sakshi TV, have been pulled up by the News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) for their reportage about the queer community in Hyderabad in their broadcast in November 2021. The two Telugu channels had reported about a police raid on a house party in Hyderabad after neighbours complained of loud noise; some LGBTQIA+ persons were also present at the party. As is the tendency of many media organisations, the two channels not only sensationalised the raid, they also broadcast visuals of those attending the party, violating their privacy and outing their sexual orientation and gender on television without their permission. However, the broadcasters’ authority has only warned the channels, one of which is notorious for insensitive reporting according to activists.

Though action has been taken against TV9 multiple times in the past, the channel has not changed its ways, says Indrajeet Ghorpade, who filed the complaint against the two news channels. Indrajeet says Telugu news channels are often serial offenders when it comes to insensitive journalism.

During the November 2021 house party raid in Hyderabad, the police said that event was held without due permission, and so they rounded up all the attendees and booked the organiser of the party. Later, the police said that some drugs, liquor and condoms were seized from the house, and thus began a series of atrocious reportage by the channels.

The party was attended by many LGBTQIA+ persons who are not out to the world. The police who raided the party took a video of all the guests who were rounded up and shared it with news channels. The media, especially Telugu news channels, aired this footage and passed sweeping statements against the LGBTQIA+ persons who were present there.

“They disclosed their identities, misgendered them, and even made absurd insinuations. The channels repeatedly broadcast their visuals, and some channels made statements that members of the hijra community were ‘obscenely dancing.’ They said that condoms were found inside the house where the party was hosted and it was portrayed as something so scandalous,” shares Indrajeet Ghorpade, who is an LGBTQIA+ rights advocate who filed the complaint against the channels with the NBDSA. “The trans community in Hyderabad was appalled.”

Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli, a transgender RTI activist and the co-founder of Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti (THITS), tells TNM that many of those who were seen in the video, though they were not booked in any case, had to face repercussions. Six months on, she says, there was no chargesheet filed, and subsequently, the case was closed in the Lok Adalat. A Lok Adalat is an alternative dispute redressal authority, where disputes or cases that are pending in the court or are at the pre-trial stage are settled or compromised amicably.

“This seems like a set-up, a smokescreen — there was no chargesheet filed and now, six months on, they have closed the case in the Lok Adalat. But because those visuals were aired, there are so many people from the community who've been thrown out of their homes, so many people who have been outed against their will, and so many people who've been ex-communicated after they were recognised from the footage… This arbitrary ‘expose’ has rendered mere party-goers who aren't even the accused, homeless. Action has been taken against three channels, but it was not just three channels. So many channels showed the visuals. Some questions still remain unanswered. What was the overarching public interest in the police recording footage of mere party-goers who aren't even the accused and then passing it on to the media? Why did the police and the media violate the privacy of the party-goers? Why were they detained through that night in the police station?” asks Vyjayanti.

In addition to TV9 Telugu and Sakshi TV, a complaint had also been filed against ETV Telangana but the NBDSA found no violation by the channel. It held in its order that the channel had broadcast the visuals but had not spoken about the sexual orientation of the guests, so it was not a violation of the code.

‘A habitual offender’

TV9’s defence to Indrajeet’s complaint to the NBDSA was that it was the police who had handed them these visuals, and they had verified and cross-checked details with the police. The channel said that all of the people whose visuals were aired were wearing masks, so technically they have not disclosed anyone’s identity. Their third defence was that the video was very dark, so they did not blur their faces.

“But channels have some responsibilities, they are supposed to adhere to media guidelines and standards under the Cable TV Act, and more importantly you have to honour an individual's fundamental rights,” shares Indrajeet, who says the channels had violated the Supreme Court judgment in the Puttaswamy case holding the right to privacy as an integral part of the right to life.

Indrajeet had pointed out in the complaint how TV9 has been a repeat violator when it comes to targeting LGBTQIA+ persons and communities. Indrajeet cited the example from 2011 when TV9 Telugu conducted a ‘sting operation’ on a gay dating app. The channel made fake accounts on the app, aired screenshots of people’s profiles without their consent, and violated the right to privacy of dozens of people. Many were traumatised by the story, and one person had even attempted suicide. For this, the NBDSA had fined TV9 Rs 1 lakh and the channel had to broadcast an apology. However, this was hardly a deterrent.   

In 2017, TV9 Telugu aired an extremely homophobic rant and held a programme asking whether youngsters are “turning homosexual” because of mental stress or from watching pornography. Then too, activists had lashed out at the channel for its highly discriminatory programme and promoting homophobic content.

Indrajeet also pointed out that another regional channel under TV9 — TV9 Marathi —was pulled up promoting the controversial and illegal practice of conversion therapy.

Indrajeet flagged the issue to the broadcasters’ authority in November 2021, and the NBDSA published its decision on March 31, 2022. Despite precedents warranting strong action against this habitual offender, this time, the NBDSA has let the channel off with just a warning. This even though the NBDSA noted that the channel had used words like "Two Hijras... partying like crazy," and “We also heard about the Rave Party. But this is a new type of party. All of them are boys. Two hijras along with them.”

Here’s what the NBDSA ruled: In TV9’s case, it found that the incident has been “twisted by unnecessarily involving LGBTQIA+ and the hijra community without proper verification.” “Accusations against persons of this community have serious social repercussions, making mindless allegations needs to be deprecated,” said Justice (Retd) AK Sikri, who is the chairperson of the NBDSA. “NBDSA expressed strong disapproval about the manner in which the programme was aired ignoring the sensitivity towards the LGBTQIA+ and/or hijra community and repeat of similar broadcasts in future will be viewed seriously,” the order added.

On viewing the footage of the broadcast by Sakshi TV, NBDSA noted that the channel made the following comments during the broadcast. "They danced obscenely along with the hijras. At the time of police raids, homosexuals were found drinking alcohol, hookah and dancing, Two hijras were taken custody along with 44 homosexuals."

The NBDSA said that the comments and statements made by Sakshi TV were not factual and gave the perception that most of the individuals at the party were from the LGTBQIA+ and/or the hijra community. “The broadcast violated the Principle of Accuracy as enshrined in the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards and under the Specific Guidelines Covering Reportage,” the NDSA held. “The broadcaster should have been sensitive to the fact that the aforementioned community does face discrimination and facts related to them should be broadcast in a sensitive manner… However, NBDSA found that the incident is twisted by unnecessarily involving LGBTQIA+ and/or hijra community without proper verification, which turned out to be factually incorrect,” the order dated March 31 added.

However, Indrajeet says that the NBDSA order has not even delved into the issue of violation of the attendees’ right to privacy. “My entire argument was around the right to privacy that was violated by these channels. And he (Justice Sikri) hasn't even mentioned that; he has only focused on the fact that the reporting was inaccurate because the FIR does not mention the people or the gay or the hijra community, so on that basis, the report was inaccurate,” Indrajeet told TNM.

And TV9 is not the only offender. In 2016, during a show aired on Zee Telugu, the host actor Geetha insulted a queer couple over their sexuality, and called their love and identities a “sin.”

‘Warning not enough’

Indrajeet points out that the core issue is that broadcasters' authority pulling up news channels is a form of self-regulation, which is ineffective most of the time. The authority can also be reluctant to take stringent action against news channels because the authority panel is made up of employees of these channels themselves.

Indrajeet is someone who keeps a close watch on reportage by news channels in India. He shares that he has flagged many problematic news items by channels and some digital media outlets over sensational, incorrect, or communal reportage. He, however, shares that it is a tedious process.

“I believe fining is slightly more effective than warnings or disapproval, because at least there is some monetary impact that the company faces,” Indrajeet says. He adds that he has till date submitted over 30 complaints to the NBDSA, and orders have been passed on around 15-20 of them. “And the orders have always been just a pat on the wrist, a symbolic order to acknowledge that the violations have happened but these orders don’t act as a deterrent.”

What’s worse, Indrajeet says, is when you try to escalate the issue to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. “The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting does not respond. You have to call them some 10 times and keep following up until they ultimately one day decide to send a response,” Indrajeet shares. Citing the TV9 Marathi case, Indrajeet says he similarly did not get any response from the I&B Ministry and finally had to approach the court, which then imposed penalties on the channel. “I was never told when the apology was aired. Was the order enforced? I had asked the Ministry for a compliance report from the channel but that never came.”

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