Too little, too late. What prevents NBDSA from taking suo moto action against an erring channel

While one does not know how seriously News18’s management would take the order of the NBDSA and what action it would take, it reflects badly on media company’s editorial policy, Shaheen Nazar opines and suggests to the company to sack Aman Chopra or at least remove him from the show.

The News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) on October 26, 2022, passed an order imposing a fine of `50,000 on News18 India, a Hindi television news channel, for turning a news debate on Karnataka hijab ban into a “communal issue”. It also directed the Mukesh Ambani-owned channel to take down a show by anchor Aman Chopra, which the NBDSA found in “flagrant disrespect” of the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards.

NBDSA chairman Justice A.K. Sikri, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, said in the order that in case “such violations are repeated in future, it may have to direct the broadcaster to ensure the presence of the anchor Mr Aman Chopra before NBDSA.” NBDSA is a self-regulatory body formed by News Broadcasters & Digital Association (NBDA), an organisation of private television news, current affairs and digital broadcasters in India. (Previously NBDA was known as NBA or News Broadcasters Association)

The mandate given to NBDSA is to “lay-down and foster high standards, ethics and practices in news broadcasting, including entertaining and deciding complaints against or in respect of broadcasters”. These standards mention a focus on objectivity, impartiality, maintaining discretion when reporting on crime against women and children, not endangering national security, etc. The body also has authority to initiate proceedings on its own and issue notice or take action in respect to any matter which falls within its regulations. This can also be through complaints referred to it by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting or any other governmental body, or by anyone else via its website.

The question is what prevents the NBDSA from taking action against an erring member channel when it has the authority to do so. Why did it not take cognisance to the hate-mongering that New18 India and many other news channels were indulging in during pro-hijab protests by Muslim students in Karnataka. A timely action would have saved the nation from the toxic debates leading to communal flare up not just in Karnataka but throughout the country.

It was in December last year when a group of Muslim students of a college in Karnataka’s Udupi city were not allowed to attend classes wearing the headscarf. As the matter snowballed, the state government on February 5 issued an order stating that students would have to wear the uniform prescribed by their schools and pre-university colleges. The Karnataka High Court upheld the ban in March. and in October, the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on petitions challenging the decision.

The present order passed against News18 India is the result of a complaint filed by a viewer Indrajeet Ghorpade, who took objection to a show hosted by Aman Chopra and filed complaint with the NBDSA. He alleged that Chopra referred to Muslim students as “hijabi gang” and “hijabwali gazwa gang” while making “false allegations that they had resorted to rioting”. He also listed “generalised statements” made by panellists on the show, and said Chopra asked “rhetorical questions” to “imply that Muslim people were safe in India and that it was India which was in danger from the Muslim community”.

NBDSA not just censured News18 India, but it also observed that the channel “would be well advised to guide and train its anchor on how to conduct debates on such sensitive issues”. While the ruling is a welcome step, it is too little, too late. What about the violations such as every day hate-mongering on air and incitements against Muslims which go unnoticed. In majority of the cases the community or a member or a group of the community being demonised by television channels do not file a formal complaint. Either they don’t know such recourse is available to them or given the current atmosphere of threat and intimidation they quietly suffer. Why should NBDSA wait for a Ghorpade to act. Aman Chopra committed the offence in April. He should have been stopped when he was doing the damage. The punishment which has come six months later has lost its significance.

Moreover, the ruling is unlikely to deter either Aman Chopra or any other anchor from doing what they are doing with complete impunity. They know they have full backing of their employers and the legal system also supports them. The so-called self-regulatory body is not at all effective. In ninety-nine per cent cases its rulings have been ignored by channel members. We have cases wherein channels have resigned from their parent body NBDA to escape punishment. Later, they have rejoined the organisation when the issue died down. 

While one does not know how seriously News18’s management would take the order of the NBDSA and what action it would take, it reflects badly on media company’s editorial policy. Ideally, News18 should sack Aman Chopra or at least remove him from the show and bring in someone more sensible. For now, the channel has removed the controversial show from its website. Compliance on the second part of the order is awaited.

[The author is a senior journalist and a visiting faculty with a Noida-based media institute.]

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