Thousands of Britons have signed a petition last week demanding a ban on Republic TV in the UK due to its ‘racist’ and ‘bigoted’ news coverage and Islamophobic debates which lead to “division between communities” and can “engender hate against and prejudice towards members of the multicultural milieu of the country.”
The petition, started by an organisation called United Against Division, urges Ofcom – the UK’s watchdog for broadcasting and telecommunications – to ban the broadcast of the TV channel Republic Bharat which airs in Hindi as “there should be no room for hateful and divisive speech.”
The petition comes in the wake of the UK regulator fining Worldview Media Network, the licensee for Republic TV in Britain, £20,000, approximately ₹20 lakh, for airing a debate conducted by Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami in which Pakistani’s were called “terrorists”, “beggars”, “thieves”, “filthy”, and “animals”.
The offensive programme was the primetime show ‘Poochta Hai Bharat’ aired on September 6, 2019, in which Goswami and his guests were ostensibly discussing India’s Chandrayaan 2 mission into space when the discussion digressed to the channel’s favourite topic for vitriol – Pakistan.
The Office of Communication or Ofcom, as it is known, in its detailed report on December 22, 2020 singled out Goswami and Major General K.K. Sinha (retd) for criticism as they repeatedly made “highly pejorative references to members of the Pakistani community” in its 35 minute discussion. Ofcom, an autonomous body funded by the very organisations it regulates, said the show failed to comply with UK’s broadcasting rules as it had “spread, incited, promoted and justified such intolerance towards Pakistani people among viewers.”
Established in 2003, Ofcom is a government-approved regulatory body with wide ranging powers across television, radio, telecoms, and postal sectors. It regulates content on television and UK video on demand services, and all commercial broadcasters must obtain a license from Ofcom to broadcast in Britain and are subjected to compliance with its codes. Ofcom also covers the only non-commercial broadcaster in the country, the BBC – while it is government-sponsored it is also an autonomous body – and its content also has to abide by the strict Ofcom Broadcasting Code.
The regulator acknowledges freedom of expression but points out that it comes with responsibilities and its code has 9 sections of “principles” and “rules” which include protecting under-18s, harm and offence, due impartiality and due accuracy, and fairness and privacy. Any member of the public can complain to Ofcom and they are bound to investigate the complaint. Unlike regulatory bodies in India, Ofcom’s entire process is transparent and time-bound. Initial assessment of all complaints is completed within 15 working days and it aims to complete all cases it takes forward for investigation within 50 working days.
Ironically, Republic Bharat has only been airing in the UK for just over a year and yet in such a short time it has already drawn the attention of Ofcom for breach of its broadcasting code three times. The channel has been reprimanded for broadcasting graphically violent footage and for airing “uncontextualised hate speech and abusive and derogatory treatment of groups” in the past and let off with a warning. However, this time Ofcom has deemed the program so bad that it issued a fine and banned the programme from being aired again.
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The sanctions were imposed on Worldview Media Network Ltd, a UK-based firm which was incorporated on June 17, 2019 and obtained a license to air Republic Bharat on the Sky TV network as a free-to-air international language channel later that year. To its detriment, Republic Bharat found that the aggression and language it could get away with on Indian television with impunity, it could not in the UK where the watchdog body was active and independent.
Within the first year of its airing, Republic Bharat was pulled up by Ofcom for three programmes – The Debate with Arnab Goswami aired on 22 October 2019, News on 3 December 2019 and Poochta Hai Bharat on various dates. Ofcom was shocked and even stated that the “number and nature of contraventions within the first year of the Licensee’s operations in the UK is concerning.”
Worldwide Media Network accepted that Ofcom had put them on notice just over two weeks prior to the broadcast of the Poochta Hai Bharat programme on Chandrayaan 2 saying that they were “receiving complaints about pejorative references to Pakistani people on the service”, but they had not paid heed.
In its defence, Worldview Media Network claimed it had taken some steps after Ofcom contacted it in February 2020 with findings of investigations to prevent further breaches including “stopping live broadcasts of debates, introducing pre-broadcast checks, and a curation process designed to ensure compliance of editorial content, and strengthening compliance briefing with guests.” Republic Bharat was also asked to air an apology on the channel which it claims it has broadcast a total of 280 times between February 26, 2020 and April 9, 2020 in both Hindi and English.
Worldview Media Network had stressed to Ofcom that the “breaches were not intentional” or “occurred deliberately with the knowledge of Republic Bharat’s senior management.” It also said the programme “did not promote terrorism or hatred and it certainly did not promote or justify hatred in any way.” However, Ofcom overruled the justifications and imposed the substantial fine as Republic Bharat is a repeat offender.
The petition, signed so far by more than 2,000 people, has been directed to the attention of Lord Burns, chairman of Ofcom and Dame Melanie Dawes, chief executive of Ofcom. “The channel has continued its disgraceful activities even after several repeated warnings by the regulator. In such circumstances, we believe the best course of action would be a complete ban on the broadcast of the channel,” pleads the petition.
(Sajeda Momin has held senior positions in Indian newspapers and now divides her time between Kolkata and London)