Bollywood vs India's news channels: Accused of drug use and provoking Rajput's suicide, stars fight back

The spectacle of India’s most-loved stars taking on two pro-government news channels and widely known anchors is an escalation that refl...



The spectacle of India’s most-loved stars taking on two pro-government news channels and widely known anchors is an escalation that reflects the increasing polarization of the country’s media industry, once considered a crucial pillar of the world’s largest democracy.

The pushback from movie stars is “unprecedented,” said Shubhra Gupta, a film critic with the Indian Express. “It has never happened before in this concerted manner.”

The dispute began in June with the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, a 34-year-old rising star. His tragic story transfixed the country: an engineering dropout who spent years acting in television shows and was on the cusp of superstardom in Bollywood. While the story dominated airtime on every channel, Republic TV and Times Now, ran salacious coverage accusing the industry of abetting his suicide or having him killed, pivoting then to charges of drug abuse and even money laundering by stars. The allegations were unsubstantiated.

Finding themselves at the center of a “media trial,” Bollywood stars say the channels’ coverage is defamatory and have asked the court to block such reporting. Though the petition does not ask for reporting on the issue to cease, it requests an injunction against reporting that violates defamation laws and rules governing television broadcasters.

Nearly every major star, production house and industry association are part of the lawsuit, which accuses the channels of invading their privacy, damaging their reputation and inciting hatred in the public against them.

The overwhelming coverage of the circumstances of Rajput’s death became a convenient distraction from multiple crises facing the country, Gupta said — from a fast-spreading virus to a tense border dispute with China.

A prime-time show on the two channels named in the lawsuit consists of as many as a dozen guests yelling at one another with an anchor egging them on. The issues are amplified by the use of dramatic hashtags pushed on social media.

Both channels have routinely been called out by fact-checking websites for running misinformation. They are criticized for supporting government actions unquestioningly. Activists, Muslims and opposition politicians have also been subjected to similar vilification campaigns by the two channels. 

Much of the histrionics on Indian television news can be traced to Arnab Goswami, the controversial anchor and co-founder of Republic TV. Goswami, a bespectacled man in his mid-40s, has come to define the ills of television news in the country with his enraged monologues and the dangerous propensity to play “executioner” in media trials of his own making. As his videos went viral and the channel steadily climbed the ratings chart, others began to follow suit.

Recently, Mumbai police launched an investigation into Republic TV, which claims to be the most-watched channel in the country, on allegations that the station has rigged its ratings setting off another battle with Goswami. On Wednesday morning, in a dramatic development, Goswami was arrested by police in a 2018 abetment to suicide case. Many in India condemned the arrest as an abuse of power by the local state government, which is run by parties opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Experts say that overall media freedom has shrunk considerably under Modi, who has been in power since 2014. Journalists and outlets seen as critical of the government have faced attacks, tax investigations and a decline in advertisement from government ministries. In the latest report by Reporters without Borders, India lags behind less-developed countries like South Sudan and Afghanistan.

“India is currently full of government-friendly journalists, particularly in television media,” said Pritish Nandy, a film producer and former newspaper editor. “So they made a huge song and dance about how corrupt, nepotistic, heavily into drugs Bollywood was to make it into some Sodom and Gomorrah case.”

Bollywood has been largely secular in politics and liberal in outlook, making it a ripe target for Hindu nationalist ideologues. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has sought to move the country away from its secular founding principles into a nation where the Hindu majority has primacy.

This friction is spilling into Bollywood. Three of the industry’s top male actors are Muslims, and the Muslim community has historically been an integral part of Bollywood. Several popular stars have had interfaith marriages, another issue that riles Hindu nationalists, who see such marriages as a ploy by Muslims to lure and convert Hindu women.

Muslim actors often have been at the receiving end of the anger of pro-government groups. Earlier this year, Aamir Khan, a Muslim superstar who is part of the current lawsuit, was berated for meeting the wife of the Turkish president while filming in the country. The incident drew the ire of the Hindu nationalists because Turkey, a Muslim country, has been critical of India’s policy in the restive region of Kashmir.

Bollywood’s power lies in its tremendous reach. Nandy said that the industry has been able to capture “the entire audience of India, irrespective of religion, caste, community and even language.”

Last year, Bollywood recorded its highest earnings, with box office collections topping $538 million. The $2.46 billion industry based in Mumbai employs thousands of people and serves as a crucible of the dreams of a young nation.

Rajput’s suicide case was handed over to the country’s premier investigating agency. Though the status of the probe remains unclear, a panel of doctors recently ruled out murder. Last week, a court in Mumbai hearing a separate matter on media regulation in the wake of the Rajput case remarked that media should not cross “boundaries” and wondered if “excessive reporting” could affect justice.

Some of that reporting included leaked private WhatsApp chats belonging to Rajput’s girlfriend and other top female actors discussing drugs. They were later questioned by authorities. Television reporters chased the actors’ convoys, reporting their every movement. Calling Bollywood the “dirtiest industry in the country,” the channels said they were responsible for enabling Pakistan to carry out narcoterrorism in India and that “skin crawling crime” was coming to light.

“We may have 800 channels and [100,000] publications, but they do not provide any news — what they generate is the clamor of clashing egos, trumpet blasts of fanatical dogmas, fountains of obsequious slime, truckloads of hatred and anger,” a former bureaucrat recently wrote.

Rahul Shivshankar, a Times Now anchor named in the petition said in a tweet that the case sets a “bad precedent” and would “not weaken the resolve” of the channel.

Courts have been reluctant to censor media in recent cases, instead arguing for greater self-regulation. It could be weeks before the court makes a ruling in the Bollywood case. In the meantime, the channels have dropped Rajput’s death from prime-time bulletins.  



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Newsrust: Bollywood vs India's news channels: Accused of drug use and provoking Rajput's suicide, stars fight back
Bollywood vs India's news channels: Accused of drug use and provoking Rajput's suicide, stars fight back
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