Dear Mr. Arnab Goswami,
We, the undersigned, who have on many occasions participated in the 9:00 p.m. News Hour programme on Times Now, anchored by you, wish to raise concerns about the shrinking space in this programme for reasoned debate and the manner in which it has been used to demonize people’s movements and civil liberties activists.
On 17th and 18th February 2015, in the News Hour show , a section of activists were invited to contribute to the debate on the “offloading” of Greenpeace representative Priya Pillai. Right from the start, the activists were denied the right to articulate their views. Not only were their mikes at times muted, they were repeatedly heckled and subjected to hate speech, with you, as the anchor, encouraging, even orchestrating and amplifying these responses.
We would like to make it clear here that the point to note is not our personal hurt, humiliation or the lack of respect shown to us from the other panelists, the anchor, or the channel. We also recognize that combative questions could be put to us when we participate in such a programme and that people may express their disagreements in a heated manner.
But we do object, and take serious exception, to the repeated branding of activists as ‘anti-national’ or ‘unpatriotic’ – words that are terms of abuse and hate-speech, and that can, when repeated ad nauseam in an influential media space, have serious repercussions. Rights activists, public figures and defendants in legal cases have been subjected to hate crimes, and even killed, in the country.
The media, which has a duty to conduct itself responsibly, cannot be allowed to aggravate the vulnerability of human rights activists, who are already being targeted, vilified and demonized, by the state and other vested and dominant interests.
We are aware that on earlier occasions, too, many other guests at the News Hour studios have also been subjected to similar treatment by anchors like you or your colleagues. In the process, debates and discussions on important subjects of national import have been reduced to a one-sided harangue, with differing and dissenting voices being deliberately stifled. Loose allegations have been made about them, aspersions cast on their motives, and insinuations made about their patriotism, with all obligations of the media to conduct themselves in a neutral, fair and accurate manner being flung to the winds.
Our objection is not restricted to the occasions when activists have been subjected to this treatment. We find it equally objectionable when guests with points of view opposed to our own, are at the receiving end. We seek media space for rational presentation of arguments – our own as well as those whom we may disagree with, not for endorsement of our points of view by the media.
We believe it is important to seek transparency and accountability from the media. We are concerned when journalistic ethics outlined by the National Broadcasting Authority (NBA) are willfully and habitually violated. We would like to cite here relevant portions of the Code of Ethics issued by the NBA.
“News shall not be selected or designed to promote any particular belief, opinion or desires of any interest group….
“Broadcasters shall ensure a full and fair presentation of news as the same is the fundamental responsibility of each news channel. Realizing the importance of presenting all points of view in a democracy, the broadcasters should, therefore, take responsibility in ensuring that controversial subjects are fairly presented, with time being allotted fairly to each point of view….
“TV News channels must provide for neutrality by offering equality for all affected parties, players and actors in any dispute or conflict to present their point of view. Though neutrality does not always come down to giving equal space to all sides (news channels shall strive to give main view points of the main parties) news channels must strive to ensure that allegations are not portrayed as fact and charges are not conveyed as an act of guilt.”
“… avoid… broadcasting content that is malicious, biased, regressive, knowingly inaccurate, hurtful, misleading….”
The television shows cited here were designed to canvas certain views held by the Government and the Intelligence Bureau and appeared as a platform for the public heckling and jeering of the activists involved, not just by other panelists but by the anchor himself. Far from maintaining neutrality and professionalism, you as the anchor were blatantly and aggressively opinionated, and never once provided the space for guests, whose views differed with yours, to voice their own opinions without continuous interruption and heckling. Apart from the fact that a fair allotment of time to them was never made, never once did you as the anchor consider the legitimate questions they raised as worthy of a response.
Not surprisingly then, an opportunity to question the accusations raised by the Government was not allowed. Instead, Government allegations were presented as self-evident facts by you as the anchor. You went on to claim that you had the ‘facts’ to prove the ‘anti-national’ character of one organization in particular and activists in general. While the responses of the activists on these panel were deliberately distorted, you as the anchor insinuated baselessly that the said activists were employing ‘hackers’, and that they had ‘deposed against India’.
We know that a similar scenario has been played out on many other occasions on the Newshour. The label ‘anti-national’ is attributed to invited guests without any basis in fact or law, as a term of abuse and hate-speech. Similar terms, used as forms of hate-speech, include, ‘Naxal’, ‘terrorist’, ‘terrorist sympathiser’.
It is inappropriate and irresponsible for channels to label anyone as ‘nationalist’ or ‘anti-national’ or ‘terrorist’ or the like. If panelists indulge in such terms, it is in fact the duty of the anchor to rein them in, and to ensure that such loaded and provocative words are not used to drown out the substantive points of the discussion or disagreement.
For moderators of the debate to allow such terms to be hurled at participants, and in fact to endorse and repeat such terms, is a gross abuse of the media’s immense power.
On one previous Newshour show on sexual violence in December 2013, intended ironically to mark the first anniversary of the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape, a prominent panelist on your programme repeatedly shouted that the two feminists on the panel were ‘Naxals who believed in free sex’. As such, the words ‘Naxalite’ and ‘free sex’ need not be pejorative. All sex should indeed be free. But in this case the terms were used as tools of abuse, equivalent to ‘terrorist’ and ‘slut’, in order to detract from reasoned argument.
Surely, even debates involving panelists’ views on, or association with, the Naxalite movement in India, have to be conducted fairly and reasonably, without allowing the term ‘Naxal’ to be used as a form of abuse or to heckle a participant. Surely, even if participants and guests support self-determination in Kashmir; or are representatives of another country; or hold an abolitionist view on the death penalty; a news channel inviting them to express their views has the obligation to allow them to do so without being branded as ‘terrorists’ or ‘anti-nationals.’ If the Government can have talks with organisations who hold these opinions, or with leaders of these countries, they are surely entitled to be heard on national television with a modicum of dignity?
In protest against the vilification of activists and dissenting opinions, and the violation of the basic norms of professionalism, neutrality, reasonableness and fairness, we have for the present decided to stay away from Times Now debates. The purpose of this gesture of protest is to demand accountability of the television media, including Times Now, to the norms outlined by the NBA’s Code of Ethics. We take this step as an effort to promote public debate and a responsible engagement with opposing ideas and stances in order to deepen democracy.
Vrinda Grover – Lawyer, Supreme Court of India
Sudha Ramalingam, Lawyer, Madras High Court and Civil liberties Activist
Pamela Philipose, Feminist and Senior Journalist
Aruna Roy, Right to Information, NREGA and Democratic Rights Activist
Anjali Bharadwaj, Right to Information Activist
Kavita Krishnan, Women’s movement and Left Activist
Kavita Srivastava, Women’s movement and Civil Liberties activist
cc: All signatories of the letter.