Journalism in Dark Times–Anatomy of propaganda and paranoia

Karnataka has been a politically hospitable ground for the BJP in South India. The party has been voted to power twice during the last ten years. Besides grassroots activism, it has meticulously nurtured the media and the media persons in the State which has been helping the party through communal campaign with hate messages, spread of fake news, use of plain lies, half truths and falsehoods. The campaign reached its crescendo during the last one year in the wake of anti-CAA agitation, allegation of Tablighi Markaz in Delhi of spreading the virus and smaller incidents of regional dimension.

The recently released report titled The Wages of Hate: Journalism in Dark Times by the Campaign Against Hate Speech (CAHS) and produced by the Alternative Law Forum, a collective of lawyers, throws light on various dimensions of hate speech and its deleterious impact on the society. The 180-page report is the labour of love of the lawyers who worked for nearly eight months collecting, collating, analysing the ideology and nuances of how the hate speech demonizes certain sections of people, employs fakery and gimmickry, and facilitates conduct of politics with fascist agendas and totalitarian ambitions.

Tools and strategy

Though the report may have focused only on Karnataka, it is worth reading all across the nation as thousands of communal outfits employ the same strategy and deploy the same tools elsewhere. Barring some issues which may be of import in particular regions, the entire machinery to inject venom through the carefully prepared narrative pursues the same or similar trajectory.

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Muslims as bogeymen

It is plain that Muslims and Christians are chief bogeymen of the communal outfits trying to polarize voters and instigating violence to woo the majority community. Rather than just picking up such issues and incidents with a regional colour, the report goes into defining the hate speech, finds out why and at whose behest the media indulges in the hate speech and what could be outcomes and reprisals for the communities that are targeted.

India is an electoral democracy with freedom of speech and expression. The vast array of media in a diversity of languages makes it difficult for narratives to be shaped in a fashion that can hide truth, get away with gimmickry, and planting of fakes and lies. But with the BJP in the saddle at the Centre, a stage has arrived whereby the major corporate houses monopolizing a variety of media are now vying with each other to colour the news in a way that helps the ruling dispensation to reinforce its political narrative.

What is hate speech

Hate speech is that variety of talk which makes free speech impossible; it challenges the very existence of certain classes of people; its hostile focus is often directed against minorities; and, is against the very idea of inclusiveness and pluralism. Having challenged its existence, it tries to delegitimize the civic freedoms and opportunities to such groups and restrains their full participation in the social, economic and political life, makes their identity doubtful, impedes their path to progress and stigmatizes them beyond imagination.

Historical precedents

The report warns that the communities that become the focus of misleading campaigns could ignore the consequences at their own peril. They need to explore all avenues to counter the hate by understanding the media architecture and develop narratives that neutralize the mischief or take legal recourse. The pogrom of Jews in Nazi Germany preceded hate campaign by Nazi mouthpiece Der Strumer between 1923 and 1939 against socialists, communists and the Jews. Rwandan newspaper Kangura ran a sinister campaign against Tutsis and instigated Hutus to violence. Between five to ten lakh Tutsis were killed during the pogrom. Role of Gujarati daily Sandesh and godi media in Delhi prior to riots in east Delhi is much recent to be ignored.

Instances

The Kannada media directed a vast array of issues from its arsenals during the last one year to tarnish the Muslim image, brand them as terrorists and anti-nationals and occasionally openly inciting violence. Their venomous coverage dehumanized Muslims. A drama based on anti-CAA protest in Shaheen School in Bidar was used to target the school. But a drama portraying demolition of Babri Masjid staged in a Mangalore school drew no attention of the authorities. Unauthorised demolition of a slum, mainly inhabited by Muslim labour from West Bengal and the North East, was justified by branding it as ‘a hotbed of Bangladeshis and terrorists’. Several TV channels attributed to ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ to speakers although they were raised by rightwing elements who had joined the anti-CAA protestors in disguise. The Hindu Jagrana Vedike, a parivar outfit, organized protests against permission to construct a hill shrine for Jesus Christ in Harobele village near Bengaluru. There was content on TV channels which amounted to character assassination of protestors. Most TV channels abandoned the objectivity for hyper-nationalism and parroted the BJP’s viewpoint rather than reporting the agitation as dissent in a democracy. It thus conflated the existing government with nationalism and protests as ‘insult to the nation’. Vigilante nationalism remained the dominant framework for reportage while covering the unauthorized demolition of slums in a part of Bengaluru in February. The report quotes slain journalist Gauri Lankesh on how leading Kannada dailies Vijaya Karnataka (owner Vijay Sankeshwar also owns VRL Transport and is a BJP MP) and Udayavani from Mangalore detailing their inflammatory writings. Screenshots of TV anchors mouthing inciting headlines illustrate the text.

The report helps understand the design and nuances of hate speech and paranoia disseminated by the Indian media in general and Kannada media in particular and as to how the partisan and poisonous propaganda is paraded as news and information.

M.A. Siraj is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru

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