A former Zee News producer reveals why he left over the network’s coverage of JNU

Taal Thok Ke is a debate show hosted by Rohit Sardana, Zee’s output editor, every day at 5 pm on Zee News.
18 March, 2016

A decade ago, when I was pursuing my mass communication degree, television journalism was not something I had given much thought to as a career. Nevertheless, on 14 October 2014, I joined the Zee News network as an output producer.

My time with Zee News is an excellent example of the “survival of the fittest.” Despite facing numerous odds, I managed to survive there for over a year. This is probably because I was one of the “fittest” beings by their standards–tolerating their open biases, distortion of facts, and constant campaigning in favour of the present government.

Once I joined Zee News, I made every effort to stay in tune with the work culture of the organisation. I worked for eight hours every day, surrendered my mobile phone before walking into the office as was required of us, and executed the orders of my seniors as religiously as possible.

Until the events of 9 February 2016.

That was the day on which so-called “anti-national activity,” had reportedly taken place inside the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

The next morning was a typical day in the Zee newsroom. It was business as usual on the fourth floor of a new building in Noida, where the newsroom is situated. Television newsrooms typically remain calm until late afternoon, unless there is some breaking news. The activity in the newsroom picks up only after editorial meetings are over and the agenda—the word that has emerged as a replacement for news—is set for the rest of the day.

The first buzz surrounding “anti-nationalism” emerged from a similar editorial discussion at the meeting room. The meeting room at Zee News is in the middle of the corridor of the “C” shaped newsroom. Once these meetings were over, it was general practice for news producers to rush to get a hold of their equipment, while holding on to a piece of paper in their hands. This chit contained “editorial” directions that were meant to give direction to a story, or to put it more plainly, to set the agenda for the day. Soon after the meeting, producers would create the rundown—the daily structure for their respective programmes—based on this direction.

The story that some “anti-national activities” had taken place inside JNU was a narrative that charged up the entire newsroom that day. Given the nature and impact of the story, a senior producer was assigned to a show on JNU that day.

That day, as far as I can recall, the producer—a gentle man who is known for his integrity—did not follow the standard protocol. Instead of grabbing a system, as was the regular routine, he directly went to the editing bay to examine the footage after the meeting. I met him in the section of the office at which all videos are edited. Enquiring about the show he was assigned to, I asked, “What are you doing today, sir?”

Taal Thok Ke,” he replied. Taal Thok Ke is a debate show hosted by Rohit Sardana—Zee New’s output editor. It is broadcast on the channel at 5 pm and 8 pm every day. The latter is a version of the show with the same host and sometimes even the same guest, but with a different layout for the screen, windows and branding.

Sardana is the show’s biggest unique selling proposition. The programme is famous, not just for his aggressive, firebrand style of questioning, but also for its peculiar name. “Taal Thok Ke—Extra strong” is a phrase which reminds us of daring–irrespective of whether it is right or wrong—to do something.

As the branding itself suggests, the “Extra” brings extra hotness (of the debate), extra flavour of political fight and extra arguments.

Sardana was excited and cheerfully clapped upon the entering the newsroom that day. Zee News has a very unique culture of clapping, which can occur at any time, and on any occasion. If a senior person claps, others present on the floor follow up regardless of reason. This is a typical example of Zee News’ style of functioning, its psychology and thinking.

In fact, it was Taal Thok Ke’s episode on 10 February that set the tone for action against “anti-national elements” in JNU. Umar Khalid, the JNU student who has been jailed on the charge of sedition, and Gaurav Kumar, also a JNU student who is a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad were a part of the panel that day. Sambit Patra, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s omnipresent spokesperson and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Rakesh Sinha were debating the issue on the government’s behalf.

The composition of the panel was such that it was four people—three guests and the anchor—against one. It did not take much to realise what was being done and the direction in which the debate was being steered.

As a flood of responses around the JNU issue followed on social media, it became clear that the cacophony was not going to die any time soon. In fact, the issue had captured the imagination of the editors at Zee News. It was going to be dragged out for as long and far as it would go.

Following the success of the episode that was telecast on 10 February, the tone of the channel only became more shrill and aggressive. By the next day, Zee News was demanding action against the “traitors.” It has also declared that JNU was the centre of “anti-national activities.”

The next day on 11 February, on his prime time show, Daily News & Analysis (DNA) at 9 pm, Sudhir Chaudhary picked up the issue in a grander way, and presented as many as six “evidences” of deshdroh (betrayal). He advocated for strict action to be taken against those who protested the hanging of Mohammad Afzal, who was convicted in the 2001 terror attack on the parliament. In his presentation, Chaudhary invoked a need for nationalistic pride against the threat of terrorism, as he compared the JNU protest with the actions of ISIS and separatists in Jammu and Kashmir.

To strengthen his take, Chaudhary framed the story of Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad‘s death against the “pro Afzal” event organised at the Press Club by Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, a former Delhi University lecturer. Chaudhary had associated the protests with terrorism much before Home Minister Rajnath Singh explored this angle and stated—supposed based on inputs from the Delhi Police—that Jamaat Ud-Dawah (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed was supporting the JNU protest. Chaudhary placed the visuals of an ISIS rally alongside that of the JNU events to drive home the parallel.

Chaudhary also went on to inform the audience that the Delhi police had lodged an FIR [First Information Report] against the JNU students. Days later, when we received a copy of the FIR, we realised that the Delhi police had used this episode of DNA as the basis for lodging the FIR. The Delhi police had named Shreejit Sarkar, an editor at Zee News, in its FIR, mentioning that it was Sarkar who had sent a copy of the footage of the “anti-national” sloganeering to the police with a cover letter.

I am not aware of what was written in the cover letter. I am equally unsure of Sarkar’s duties as an editor at the channel are, since I never saw him at any of the editorial meetings during my time there.

In television journalism, we live and die for the “impact.” This is where we attribute an event—such as government action on accord of Zee News’s coverage—to the actions of the channel. But we were hesitant to slot this story under the “impact” category because our supervisor was not sure of how the editors would respond. It was, he thought, possible that some editors would not want to take credit for this as it may have given the impression that the police and the network were working hand in hand.

Ultimately, we ran this story with selective text, as a small news item. But, what may have been small for us turned out to be big for our viewers. Even the smallest piece of information on the JNU issue was turning out to be a big booster for “nationalists.”

Based on both, the footage from Zee News, and pressure from the police and political parties, the JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on the charge of sedition and criminal conspiracy on 12 February. The rest of this story is known to all of us.

This was followed by protests and marches by students and people claiming to be “nationalists,” which further provoked the discourse surrounding the events of 9 February. Amidst the frenzy of these protests, we received the news of the attack on the Student Federation of India (SFI) office in Lucknow.

Zee News, for reasons not known to me, chose not to play this story. This was when I started feeling nervous. My sense of guilt increased with the news of the attack on Kumar inside the court premises was aired, and rape threats against Khalid’s sister were made.

During the day I would term the arrested JNU students “Deshdrohi” (traitors) on behalf of the news channel that I worked for. In the evening, on Facebook, I would post articles in support of these students. This was because I have known JNU and its politics for over ten years, having studied at the mass communication institute situated inside the campus.

I became completely detached from the Zee News stories that were being presented as the only reality. The bias in the approach of Zee News’ presentation of the news became even starker when the channel continued its anti-JNU and anti-Kanhaiya rhetoric even thought it had become clear that the Delhi police could not present any concrete proof of his involvement in anti-India sloganeering.

Undeterred, the news channel continued with its promotion of hatred in the guise of nationalism.

Each day, Chaudhary would come up with a new khulasa (revelation) on his prime time show. On 16 February, he claimed that an Intelligence Bureau report was allegedly sent to the Union Home Minister by the Delhi police, informing them about anti-national activities in JNU much before the “anti-India sloganeering” incident took place.

According to Chaudhary, this report was filed on 12 November 2015 and the conspiracy behind these protests was hatched much before. This claim was debunked by an IB official in the press. On 16 February 2016, students of Jadavpur University, Kolkata, marched in support of the JNU students. This added fuel to the fire for the news channel. After all, Zee News claims to champion the cause of Rastravadi (nationalist) journalism. This adopted identity may also have been why the channel did not give a lot of air time to the attack on Kumar that was allegedly executed by BJP MLA OP Sharma and several men dressed as lawyers.

On 19 February, at 3.17 pm, I mailed my resignation letter to Sardana. I did not receive any reply or correspondence from his side immediately. Meanwhile, Newslaundry, the news media website, learnt about my resignation and began exploring a story on the incident. When reporters from the website contacted editors from Zee News for their version, the editors questioned my journalistic capacity and spread rumours against me. They did not engage with any of the issues I had raised in my letter.

This was when I decided to take my fight public. On 21 February, at 2.14 pm, I posted a copy of my resignation on Facebook, quoting my favourite poem By Maya Angelou, “Still I rise.”

Vishwa Deepak Vishwa Deepak has worked for organisations such as Aaj Tak, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle (Germany). He joined Zee News in 2014 as a producer. He left the organisation a little over a year later.