Countering Islamophobia in the Indian Media

Press Council & Government Must Act

 Asad Mirza, Senior Journalist,  Delhi 

In the recent days, post Delhi riots and Tableeghi Jamaat’s alleged actions violating the Corona pandemic related rules have brought into sharp focus, the anti-Muslim narrative promoted by fake news web sites, social media and most of the mainstream TV channels across India.

Indian Muslims, have become fed up of the anti-Muslim bias prevalent amongst news anchors and presenters beginning last year, starting with news related to  lynching of Muslim men on suspicion of cow slaughter, Muslims reaction on criminalisation of triple talaq, revocation of Art 370 in Kashmir, clearance for constructing a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, police brutalities and legal action against Muslims protesting a law aimed at creating the second-class citizenship, all narratives were filled-up with apparent anti-Muslim bias. However, the reportage on the Corona virus pandemic has perhaps proved to be the tipping point amongst Muslims, from laymen to intelligentsia, against the majority of the Indian media.

This disbelief and lack of trust in the media, has led to calls and proposals to establish a Muslim media house, bringing out newspapers, magazines and TV channels, in English and Urdu languages, which could present the accurate picture and try to counter the anti-Muslim bias prevalent in the mainstream and vernacular Indian media.

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The proponents of this new endeavour feel frustrated by the unprofessional attitude adopted by the bodies which are supposed to watch and maintain professional decorum amongst their members, viz. newspapers, magazines and TV channels. Bodies like the Press Council of India and Editors Guild have either chosen to be silent spectators or reacted in a very subdued manner on the recent campaigns carried out by certain newspapers and TV channels against one particular community and its religious bodies. Perhaps we also need an independent body like Ofcom of the UK, which acts as a watchdog for all media outlets in the UK and even the BBC, which is well known for its impartial and unbiased reportage, comes under its purview. The Hindi newspapers and TV channels which carried out a virtual hate campaign recently, vilifying a community on a baseless and mostly incorrect information didn’t even had the courtesy to set the record straight and apologise for their unprofessional behaviour. May be, all these factors have buoyed the calls for starting a new media house.

However, the plans to start new newspapers, magazines and TV channel in English language though seem very rosy and easy, yet it would bring a huge responsibility, besides requiring a great tenacity to survive in the current situation, on the shoulders of the team or person who agrees to start these new initiatives on behalf on the Indian Muslim community.

Based on past experiences, it could be surmised that staring a new newspaper or TV channel, will not be a child’s joke. In the past, such initiatives have failed miserably, either due to the personal idiosyncrasies of the person given the responsibility or on account of the demands placed on that person by various stakeholders of the initiative.

In the current business environment, every newspaper or TV channels’ survival and profitability depends on the advertisement revenue it is able to pull in. These revenues are channelled towards it by the major advertising agencies, who buy printed space or air-time for their clients based on the profile and readership/viewership of the outlet. 

However, an impartial study of the manner in which the advertising agencies ignore the minority language and vernacular newspapers, magazines or other media outlets of the minorities ensure that these newspapers or magazines survive at the fringes of the big money profits, supported largely by their small- time diehard supporters. The media planners at most of the advertising agencies take the minority community for granted and assume that English, Hindi and other vernacular language mediums can influence them. In addition to this, in the current scenario it would not be easy to get all necessary permissions and clearances for any new media initiative easily.

At present, the successful newspapers in Urdu-the language, which is associated whimsically with Muslims, are few in numbers, as compared to other vernacular newspapers across India. The trio of Hyderabad—Etemaad, Siasat and Munsif, Akhbar-e Mashriq from Kolkata, Inquilab from Delhi and Kashmir Uzma from Srinagar can be described as profitable newspapers from amongst the thousands of Urdu dailies, weeklies and fortnightlies published across India.

The reason for their success is not hard to fathom. The Hyderabad trio survive on a strong Urdu readership in Telangana, which buys their newspaper, along with a small but vibrant business community of Hyderabad city, which can afford advertising space in these newspapers; the same applies to Kashmir Uzma and Akhbar-e Mashriq while the Inquilab survives on the strong marketing and circulation departments of its owners the Dainik Jagran, the No 2 newspaper in Hindi.

The rest of the newspapers, which are brought out in Urdu, are not up to the reckoning and are surviving perhaps due to the patronage of a political or a religious group. And most importantly they are predominantly city-specific, not all-India present. And for any new entrant to secure a place as an all-India one and be the voice of the Muslims will be an uphill battle, due to various pulls and pressures exerted on it

To be successful, the new English newspaper could try to copy the model of newspapers published from the Gulf, which give equal space to all communities present there, besides maintaining a neutral political stance. Practically, instead of trying to bring out an English language newspaper, what would be more prudent in the current scenario, where social media platforms have outpaced all other forms of communication, could be to chalk out a plan which is not complicated to start and not too ambitious to survive. 

It would be better if the community first tries to handle the Fake and biased news. A strong rebuttal and countering mechanism would serve the community well, as the cost for this would not be too high. The first step towards this could be to build a monitoring team, which could keep track of all anti-Muslim news, to be fed to a team of fact checkers, who with strong research and messaging capabilities should be able to counter any anti-Muslim narrative promptly and professionally.

 

For this to be achieved, it would be necessary to build a centralised and state-wise professional team of monitors, fact checkers and spokesmen (not clergy), who all together would be able to nail any lie quickly. In monetary terms this initiative will not be too expensive to start with.

Next, the community spokesmen should be trained in the language of the states to which they belong. They should be coached in language nuances, debate capabilities and how to engage in a coherent and conclusive dialogue with their competitors, viz. every aspect of conducting a successful verbal communication process. 

Every state should have a small team of at least five people who can represent the community at every media opportunity. But given the fractured nature of the Muslim leadership, this seems too far-fetched, as the leaders (both religious and political) may not agree amongst themselves on any common response, keeping in mind their own personal agendas. However, an effort should be made to constitute a panel of erudite and knowledgeable people to represent the community at various media opportunities.

Secondly, a central team of the Monitors based in Delhi should keep track of state monitors and should be equipped to give out quick and coherent response to every issue, charge or misrepresentation on various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Thirdly, instead of investing in a costly TV channel project, the community elders could think about starting a web news portal, in English and all 13 prominent Indian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Assamese, Bangla and Oriya). A team of ace anchors, moderators and presenters should be hired to produce analytical and current affairs programmes besides debates/panel discussions, which could be hosted on the website, through Podcast or YouTube, thus keeping the cost down and easily accessible by all on their mobile.

Remember, if we want to convey our messages to every Indian citizen, then we’ll have to engage with them in their own language, thus the need to build a team of vernacular languages experts-dealing with every creative aspect of the new initiative should be ensured. In addition, any new initiative, whether a newspaper or a web portal, should be managed by professionals both Muslims and non-Muslims with strong language skills in English and different vernacular languages. And the person leading the initiative should be completely apolitical and neutral.

All this seems achievable and commendable, but the biggest requisite for this to succeed would be the coming together of different leaders representing various sects, outfits and schools within the Muslim community at one platform. Also, till the time we have the clergy representing us at every forum, nothing good could come out of it, instead we should have a panel of academics, researchers, ideologues, businessmen and entrepreneurs, activists and ground level workers, who should be seen as the real face of the community.

—ends—

Asad Mirza is a Sr journalist based in New Delhi. In his career spanning more than 20 years, he was associated with BBC Urdu Service and Khaleej Times of Dubai. He writes on Muslims, educational, international affairs and interfaith issues. Email: asad.mirza.nd@gmail.com

Note : These are writer’s personal views. 

 

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