Zee News dodged a bullet on November 13, when the National Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) ruled that it needed to uphold the statute of limitations as it applied to a complaint file by Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) regarding the highly communal and inflammatory content of its show on the subject of “Zameen Jihad”. Advocates Aparna Bhat and Karishma Maria appeared for CJP.
Brief background of the case
On March 11, 2021, Zee News aired a programme hosted by Mr. Sudhir Chaudhary titled DNA: Jammu मेंज़मीन के ‘इस्लामीकरण’
In the program, the host, Mr. Sudhir Chaudhary, showed his viewers a Jihad diagram propagating various types of Jihad in the country categorising them as soft jihad and hard jihad. He then went on to explain, “Hard Jihad includes Population Jihad, Love Jihad, Land Jihad, Education Jihad, Victim Jihad and Direct Jihad, while Soft Jihad includes Economic Jihad, History Jihad, Media Jihad, Movies and Songs Jihad and Secular Jihad.”
Apart from the extremely offensive and shockingly inflammatory content of this programme, what was especially disturbing was how the host, Mr. Chaudhary was encouraging people to tweet using #ZameenJihad, a deeply communal hash tag, a brazenly provocative move that can also incite hate.
CJP, as per protocol, first sent a complaint to Zee News on March 24, 2020, and after having not received any response, approached the NBDSA, then called the News Broadcasters Standards Authority (NBSA) on April 16, 2020. In the complaint, CJP highlighted how the show violates the Code of Ethics and other guidelines set out by the NBSA such as ensuring neutrality, specific guidelines of impartiality and fairness, racial and religious harmony.
On April 17, Zee News responded to this complaint saying that our assertions are baseless and frivolous. They claimed that they have neither breached any of the guidelines of NBSA nor committed any offence, much less offences under Section 153A, 295A, 298 and 505 of India Penal Code as mentioned in CJP’s complaint. “They have strictly adhered to the laid down principles of neutrality, impartiality and fairness in their telecast of the aforesaid news report,” claimed Zee News about their team. They also added that “they are not against any particular religion and their report relates only to those groups of extremists and/or terrorists, who, in the garb of jihad and Ghazwa-e-Hind, have been trying to convert India into an Islamic Nation. Needless to state that such extremists and/or terrorists have no religion and as a responsible media, they have all right to expose them in the “interest of our nation.”
To this, CJP filed a rejoinder on May 8, 2020, in response reiterating its earlier assertions as well as calling out the news channel on misreporting. CJP has further pointed out how Zee News has validated the use of the term “jihad” in a negative connotation and has clearly manipulated its meaning. Moreover, CJP has called out the channel’s anti-Muslim narrative, “the ‘perpetrated fears’ of ‘unbridled’ Muslim/Islamic growth is an oft and old hashed out narrative among supremacist and communal narrative in India, being ill-used to perpetrate hatred of and alienation from the Indian Muslim community.”
At a meeting held on July 10, 2020, the NBSA considered the CJP’s complaint, Zee News’s response and the rejoinder by CJP. It was of the prima facie view that the content of the show violated:
– Fundamental Principles of Code of Ethics No-6 that deals with full and fair presentation of news,
– Guidelines of Broadcast of Potentially Defamatory Content No-5 that says that a news anchor/journalist or presenter should not make derogatory, derisive or judgmental statements as part of reporting or commenting
– Specific Guideline Covering Reportage related to Racial and Religious Harmony Clause 9 that explicitly states that racial stereotyping should be avoided and advises caution while reporting content that denigrates or is likely to offend the sensitivities of any racial or religious group
– Fundamental principles of Code of Ethics such as impartiality, objectivity, neutrality and fairness
NBSA was also of the prima facie view that the tone and tenor of the programme was divisive and that broadcast was targeting a particular community.
Statute of limitations
Perhaps it was the view of the NBSA at the time that led Zee News to plead a technicality in a purported bid to dodge the inquiry into the content of the show.
The counsel for Zee News at the hearing on November 26, 2020 submitted that Regulation 8.1.6 states “complaint shall be made to the broadcaster by a person aggrieved within a reasonable time not exceeding 7 (seven) days from the date of the first broadcast.” But CJP’s complaint to Zee News was dated March 24, 2020 i.e six days after the deadline. Zee News further submitted that as per Regulation 8.2, if the broadcaster does not respond within seven days, the complainant is given further 14 days after expiry of the relevant period to file a complaint with the Authority. This comes to a period of 21 days, that expired on April 14, 2020, i.e two days before CJP complained to the NBSA. Zee News submitted that before arguments on merits of the case commence the matter of statute of limitations needed to be settled.
To this CJP responded by accepting that there was indeed a six-day delay, however, there was a reasonable explanation for it. While the programme was broadcast on March 11, 2020, the full extent of the brazenly communal hashtag #ZameenJihad that the anchor of the show had encouraged people to use on social media, became evident only after a few days. Further while some staff members had viewed the show, not all trustees had done so. Therefore, CJP took a few days to consult its Board. Additionally, the team was already impacted by work-from-home directives issued in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused further hurdles in terms of delays. This last reason also caused the two-day delay in filing the complaint with the NBSA. CJP, therefore requested the NBSA to condone the delay.
To this, Zee News argued that while NBSA had the authority to condone the second delay, where CJP missed the deadline for filing a complaint with the NBSA by two days, it did not have the authority to condone the first delay, where CJP missed the deadline for filing a complaint with the broadcaster by six days.
The NBDSA then relied on provision 1 and 2 to Regulation 8.1.6 according to which the “Authority shall not entertain any complaint” if the complaint to the broadcaster was not made within seven days of the date of broadcast. Therefore, the NBDSA could not entertain CJP’s complaint and on November 13, dismissed it on the ground that it was filed beyond the period of limitation permitted under the Regulations.
The entire order may be read here: