Times Now, same old tricks

Written by Geeta Seshu | Published on: January 1, 2018

On triple talaq, the channel imputed nefarious motives to an NGO for ‘contacting’ MPs and later took down the video to alter the look and feel of the debate. Why?

GEETA SESHU wants to know
There are facts, damn lies, and then there is Times Now. Amongst all the programmes by news channels on the government’s controversial move to introduce a bill criminalizing Muslim men who divorce their wives through triple talaq, this channel’s discussions stands out.

The bill was tabled by around noon on December 29 in the Lok Sabha and passed by the evening, with either guarded acceptance or opposition from opposition parties including the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress, and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.  

The paucity of informed debate over the bill was underlined by the speed with which the bill was formulated, tabled and passed, the lack of consultation on its provisions and the fact that the drafts were hardly widely circulated. Public opinion on the implications of criminalising triple talaq tilted towards the government’s stand that it was following the judgment of the Supreme Court to make the practice unconstitutional.

But what happens to the few dissenting voices? To those who rejected it in toto? Or to those who accepted it with reservations or sought amendments to the bill? How do they get treated by the media? The following programme on Times Now is instructive.
"The manner in which the debate was conducted quickly showed that this was not going to be scholarly scrutiny of the bill"
On December 25, three days before the bill was introduced in Parliament,  ‘#Teen Talaq Blockade’ on the opposition by women’s organizations to the bill was broadcast on prime time. The panel comprised Nupur Sharma, BJP spokesperson, Shehzaad Poonawala for the Congress, advocates Sanjay Hegde and Mahmood Paracha, and activist Hasina Khan from a Muslim women’s rights network called the Bebaak Collective.

The Bebaak Collective was also involved in the Supreme Court case which resulted in the judgment that called triple talaq unconstitutional. The Bebaak Collective had also mounted a critique of the bill, stating that any move to criminalise men who practiced instant triple talaq would ultimately backfire on women.
On the surface, the panel appeared to reflect a gamut of public opinion: those in favour, those who accepted the bill albeit with reservations, those who rejected it outright, and those who rejected with some reservations. But the manner in which the debate was conducted quickly showed that this was not going to be  scholarly scrutiny of the bill.  

The montage shrieked: ‘Plot to kill Teen Talaq Bill, plan hatched at secret meeting, Cong MP hosts secret meeting, Teesta NGO lends muscle.’

The anchor and Times Now editor-in-chief, Rahul Shivshankar, announced in a high-pitched tone that political parties were plotting to sabotage the bill. K Rehman Khan, who was a minority affairs minister in the UPA, had hosted a meeting with opposition MPs to ‘ambush’ the bill. The anchor brought in the Times Now correspondent, Madhavdas Gopalakrishnan, who informed viewers of the secret meeting and the ‘hard fact’ that the meeting was attended by members of the Bebaak Collective, described as an organization that was part of ‘Teesta Setalvad’s NGO’, the Sabrang Trust.

Shivshankar added that the Bebaak Collective was providing a legal perspective and that its link to Setalvad’s NGO ‘raised alarm bells’ as “Teesta Setalvad is a known Modi baiter.”

Gopalakrishnan agreed at the outset that this was a democratic country and MPs were free to meet whoever they wanted but, in the very next breath, said the meeting seemed to be ‘political’ in nature! As further evidence of the link between the Bebaak Collective and Teesta Setalvad, he said that a Google search of the Bebaak Collective takes one to the Sabrang Trust’s website.  

Shivshakar intoned: “‘Why did parliamentarians not approach other legal or religious scholars instead of this NGO?”

When given a chance to speak, Hasina Khan tried to clarify that the Bebaak Collective was an independent collective of Muslim women’s organisations across India. It had approached all MPs and even BJP ministers like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj to argue that the bill was a disastrous idea.

Asked why the Bebaak Collective’s statements appeared on the Sabrang Trust website, Khan tried in vain to explain that its press conference and statements have been covered by several magazines and sites, including Outlook, Frontline and the Guardian. “We can’t stop anyone from using our statements but that does not mean we are linked to anyone”, she said. When she tried to explain the Collective’s stand further, her mike was muted.

While Sharma got a fair bit of time to speak, Poonawala and Hegde were given their space while Paracha got a brief chance to make his intervention. The ‘debate’continued on the channel’s primetime show The Newshour, with the hashtag #TeenTalaqBlockade and flashing headlines which said ‘Plan to ambush ‘equality’ and ‘Why pander to patriarchy?’.
Then the volte face….
Now here’s where things get interesting. All of the above occurred on Times Now on December 25. On December 28, the day the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, the video was taken down from the Times Now site. For much of the day, the site displayed a 404 error with the legend: ‘looks like this is the wrong url or this page has been taken down’.
"There’s no explanation from the channel as to why this programme was temporarily taken down and edited"
By night, the video was uploaded again, this time with a write-up entitled ‘Why pander to patriarchy?’ While the audio was pretty much the same, the montage was markedly different. The text boxes with the screaming headlines and captions (Plot to kill Teen Talaq Bill, plan hatched at secret meeting, Cong MP hosts secret meeting, Teesta NGO lends muscle) had disappeared, leaving a much more visually sober programme.

There’s no explanation from the channel as to why this programme was temporarily taken down and edited, just the cursory ‘updated’ beside the dateline of December 25. For all practical purposes, it gives the impression of being a fresh programme, with a new title.

After the programme was aired on December 25, the Bebaak Collective filed a complaint with Times Now and with the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) against the way in which the programme misrepresented its work. Khan told The Hoot that the NBSA has acknowledged its complaint and forwarded it to Times Now to seek its response within seven days.

The complaint stated:
‘Bebaak Collective, exercising a democratic right, had made attempts to contact all representatives of all political parties and leaders including Ministers like Mr Arun Jaitley, Ms Sushma Swaraj, Mr Rajnath Singh, Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad and Mr Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi  to explain our apprehensions about why we do not support such a bill. On 10th October of this year, we had met Mr Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Minister of Minority Affairs, the Chairperson of National Minority Commission. We met chairperson of Maharashtra Women Commission and also on 20th November, we met PA to Maneka Gandhi in her Parliament office while she was absent.
While promptness on part of the government should not eschew the role of women's groups who have struggled for decades to fight against patriarchy, we primarily demand from the government that women's groups be consulted before bringing any Bill in the Parliament.

We believe the media plays an important role in shaping public opinion. However, these attempts to distort and misrepresent our point of view are highly regrettable and reprehensible. We strongly demand an acknowledgement of this statement in the TV channel as well as an apology for sheer distortion of our work.’
In its press conference and statements circulated to the media, the Bebaak Collective had said it was against criminalization since penal action would not help get justice for women who may instead be deprived of the matrimonial home; that civil redressal measures should be used instead of punitive action to deal with the breakdown of a marriage which is essentially a civil contract between two adults; and that the bill failed to even look at the economic and social security of women, or of other pernicious practices like polygamy or halala.

Despite the more sober look and feel of the programme as it now is online, it is puzzling why Times Now imputed motives to activists who were lobbying with parliamentarians as well as members of the government about their stand on the bill.

“All that we have asked for is a broader consultation on these issues. Is that not democratic? Why did they attack us?’’ asked a mystified Khan.
Geeta Seshu is based in Mumbai and is a contributing editor at The Hoot.

This article was first publihed on Hoot.org