JNU's Kanhiaya Kumar & the role of television news

MUMBAI: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

Given the perilous times that we are living in today, no words  resonate more aptly than these lines penned by Rabindranath Tagore more than a hundred years ago.

Over the past one week, the country has witnessed debates, discussions and dialogues galore after the incident that happened in the Patiala Court on 15 February. That was the fateful afternoon when lawyers condemned students, journalists and cameramen who were present in court. That was the day when Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, who had been arrested on charges of sedition for allegedly raising anti-India slogans, was supposed to be produced in front of the judge.

With no journalist being spared by the ‘judges,’ the police force opted to be mere watchers turning a blind eye to what was happening. Anyone who didn’t look like a lawyer was beaten up. This action not only spurred anger across the nation but also marked 16 February as a Black Day wherein journalists displayed solidarity against what had happened in the high profile court complex. Hundreds of journalists decided to walk from the Press Club of India to the Supreme Court at noon on Tuesday to protest against the violence that took place.

The event also saw some students allegedly raising anti-India slogans. NDTV CEO Vikram Chandra told that the unfortunate incidents on that day were deplorable. 

Said he:  “I strongly oppose the slogan shouting that happened. It was highly inappropriate and shameful. Also, such reactions from the lawyers is disgraceful.”

Then came claims, claims and more claims. Every news channel talked about the video that came out showing students chanting anti-Indian slogans, which celebrated Afzal Guru. While on the one hand, news channels kept airing the video of the attack by lawyers, on the other a few opted to take a stand on bigger issues of the events that unfolded at JNU. While some covered the attacks by lawyers, some covered the student protests at JNU. Diverse opinions and viewpoints bombarded newswatchers at home. 

Such incidents make us question the basic right of freedom of expression laid down in Section 19 of the Indian Constitution. In the light of what happened, the lawyers completely mishandled and misinterpreted this basic right. 

And in this constant tug-of-war between one side or the other, we saw some TV reporters and anchors going overboard and taking it out against each other in public.

We watched as Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami conducted his routine debate session, bashing the students and disregarding what had happened. And the vociferous senior journalist has faced much criticism for the way he portrayed the event. 

What’s more, Goswami has faced flak from senior journalists like NDTV’s Ravish Kumar and India Today Television’s Rajdeep Sardesai, who directly took him on because of his take on the entire issue. Goswami got fiery with the liberals asking them if such sloganeering or glorifying a terrorist as a martyr is freedom of speech or sedition, to speak the language of separatists? He ran out of “patience” while discussing this entire incident when one of the students Omar Khalid interrupted him in his prime time show The Newshour.

NDTV senior journalist Ravish Kumar voiced his views on nationalism and what its connection is with our democracy. Kumar, in a blank black screen video with only subtitles, fired direct salvos against some anchors including Goswami. Starting with lines like: “In the name of debate, the everyday noise and shouting is either bringing you to light or taking you to darkness. You too must have been wondering.” 

With just a dark and empty background sprinkled generously with impactful words, strong ideas and an eye-ball grabbing narration, he talked about the way in which TV debates are shaping up today. 

He said, “Our job is not to provoke or incite, but simply ask; ask questions to those in power. But TV anchors don’t do that, intentionally so, and they shout. Is this how you speak at home, to your family, to your sister, to your wife?” he asked, adding, “Do we get accountability by screaming on television?”

On the other hand, Sardesai came out with a blog titled: ‘I'm anti national,’ where he tried to convey an important point, and that was to stop dividing people in the name of nationalism. 

“Yes, I am anti-national because I believe in an expanded definition of the right to free speech as spelt out in Article 19 of the Constitution,” are his exact words from the blog. He opined that the right to dissent is a fundamental right. “People cannot and should not take the law into their own hands. I don’t know yet whether the slogans that were raised were from the students or someone else,” he added.

Video clips all over the Internet and social media have depicted students yelling out slogans like, Bharat ki barbaadi tak jang rahegi, Afzal Guru Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad. However, the authenticity of these very videos is still shrouded in doubt. 

To add to all this comes the shocking news about a Zee News producer Vishwa Deepak resigning from the news channel as a sign of disgust on the alleged biased coverage of the JNU protests and the sedition charges against the students’ union leader.

He was reportedly a part of the team that produced a show on the night of 9 February, when alleged anti-India slogans were raised at the JNU campus. Deepak stated that the channel had broadcast a video of students raising slogans with a caption that said ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ while no such sloganeering was done and this could be easily figured out from the crowd and the darkness at that time.

Of course media houses went to town carrying  his resignation letter in its entirety or excerpts from it, rubbing their hands in glee as it gave them fodder to denigrate the Hindi news channel as a handmaiden of the Modi sarkar. 

Zee News has condemned and denied Vishwa Deepak’s statement saying that he was not associated with the coverage of the JNU crisis. It added that it has submitted the raw footage of the students sloganeering to the Delhi police and is awaiting the latter’s analysis to vindicate its stand. Additionally, it has stated it has no affiliations with any political parties. 

CNN-IBN senior journalist Bhupendra Chaubey on his part has asked the nation’s journalists to be more vigilant. Said he: “It’s time that all the top editors and anchors across the industry should start looking at the reasons behind so much of hatred and negativity on social media. We should all be careful about what we are putting up on TV in-front of the nation.”

With so much happening all around the world, it looks like a powder keg situation is brewing. With every passing day unveiling a new façade of the issue, the journalists and the media houses have to be fearless and honest so as to empower the citizens who rely on the Fourth Estate for credible information. 

Freedom of speech and expression is a sovereign and democratic right of every Indian citizen irrespective of  caste, community, colour and creed. 

But what if somebody is using the constitutional offering to sabotage harmony and arouse a polarised scenario? Who draws the line? 

Self regulation based on conscience, morals and ethics seems to be not working, but is a regulatory body constructed under government diktat, a safer option?

On the other hand, the Press in India has more freedom as compared to many other countries. But how is it helping the nation? If Goswami says no, then Barkha Dutt will contradict with a yes. If Zee News says galat (wrong), Aaj Tak will say sahi (correct). Even as journalists are marching on the road and news channels are resorting to visual effects, is anyone thinking on what the repercussions this will have on the millions following them? Certainly not!

The Father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi rightly said, “The true function of journalism is to educate the public mind, not to stock it with wanted and unwanted impressions.” 

That sagacious advice has been dust-binned by today’s trigger happy media. Decibel is the new decorum and views are all that is left in news, and TV ratings are all that matter. It remains to be seen, how long this craftsmanship can continue.

’Tis the time to really ponder over where we, as a country are going from hereon…

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