It’s TV Witch-Hunt Season 2. This Time It’s Disha Ravi

Social Commentary

It’s TV Witch-Hunt Season 2. This Time It’s Disha Ravi

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Is the woman who shared the now-infamous farmers’ protests toolkit a local activist or in cahoots with an international cabal? A climate crusader or an agent of terror? Disha Ravi or Disha Joseph?

If you’ve been watching TV news, you would be forgiven for not knowing the answers to any of these questions. The “toolkit case” has dominated mainstream news channels for most of the week, and their coverage of the incident has been more obfuscating than enlightening. This seems to be turning into a pattern with Indian media, whose job of late has not been to inform as much as to vilify women and sensationalise issues.

The nation’s courts have thus far been in agreement. Today the Delhi High Court heard Ravi’s case against various national news organisations, including News18, TimesNow, IndiaToday, for publicising details about her – contents of her alleged private chats – in an irresponsible and unjust fashion. Making observations about “sensationalism” in the coverage of the case, it instructed reporters to ensure the “probe is not hampered”. “While a journalist cannot be asked to reveal their source, the same has to be authentic. The Delhi Police claims that it has not leaked anything whereas the media claims to the contrary,” the court observed today.

Analysing WhatsApp conversations between Ravi and Greta Thunberg, Zee News anchor Sudhir Chaudhary declared that he had proof that would make the audience “hate” the two activists. CNN News18 claimed to show the audience “the reality around us where those who have always had the intent to break our country and bleed it with a thousand cuts are now resorting to something that many don’t understand”.

The Disha Ravi coverage is reminiscent of a few months ago, when the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput dominated the headlines incessantly.

According to Ravi’s lawyer Akhil Sibal, key information about the hearing came out in the news due to a leaked FIR. Channels have been reporting headlines based on statements by the Delhi Police, the FIR, and a familiar standby of the news media cycle: Ravi’s WhatsApp chats. “Half-baked, speculative information about an ongoing investigation was being disseminated,” the lawyer told the court.

The Disha Ravi coverage then is reminiscent of a few months ago, when the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput dominated the headlines incessantly. Before long, the conversation was not about the actor at all, but his girlfriend at the time of his death, Rhea Chakraborty. Her WhatsApp chats and trivia about her personal life were whipped up into a narrative that painted her as a “chudail” who controlled Rajput through a cocktail of “black magic and drugs”, and ultimately was responsible for his “murder due to her connections with the Bollywood mafia”. Never mind that no evidence was found to support these bizarre theories; a CBI investigation concluded that Rajput’s tragic death, far from being the shadowy homicide it was made out to be, was actually a suicide. Chakraborty spent 28 days in prison; her brother Showik, who was arrested on drug-related charges, three months. The family spent months being vilified and continues to be hounded by the media.

The Bombay High Court had a sharp rebuke for news channels for conducting a media trial in Chakraborty’s case, and already, the Delhi High Court has taken cognisance of the highly speculative coverage of the charges against Ravi, issuing notices to News18, TimesNow, and News Broadcasting Standards Authority over unsubstantiated leaks and social media statements. The media has provided legitimacy to online trolls who drum up bogus theories that have nothing to do with reality.

The facts we know so far is that Ravi shared a social media toolkit on how to support the massive farmers’ protests that have raged on in Delhi for months. Lakhs of protestors from several states have shown up to challenge the Centre’s controversial agricultural laws.

To confidently state the intentions behind Ravi’s actions as basis for her arrest under the draconian sedition law is a bold move.

A toolkit contains instructions for how to support a particular movement, including social media tags, petition and donation links, and details of upcoming protests. They are open to changes, which is how Ravi made her own additions to the farmers’ protest toolkit – precisely two edits, she claims. Thunberg, who has already expressed her support for the protests, briefly retweeted Ravi’s revised toolkit. (Ravi heads the Bangalore chapter of Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future movement, which originated with Thunberg skipping school on Fridays to raise awareness of the climate crisis.) Delhi Police have filed charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy, claiming that Ravi’s association with Thunberg proves that the toolkit is part of an international scheme to “tarnish” India’s images. They have alleged that Ravi, along with two other activists, Mumbai lawyer Nikita Jacob and Pune engineer Shantanu Muluk, collaborated with pro-Khalistani elements. “The main aim of the toolkit was to create misinformation and disaffection against the lawfully enacted government,” Delhi Police said at a presser on Monday.

To confidently state the intentions behind Ravi’s actions as basis for her arrest under the draconian sedition law is a bold move – one that, from a legal standpoint, would be easy to call into question. But equally as important as the Delhi Police’s flimsy basis for such serious charges is the news media’s unquestioning reporting of them. So far, the FIR and chargesheet against Ravi are just that: accusations laid by the police that still need to be upheld in a court of law before they can be taken as true.

But in the meantime, even as the courts try to restrain the media from indulging in ginning up public sentiment against Ravi in order to keep viewers glued to the screen, the damage has already been done. What channels are doing is just providing fodder for the spread of misinformation. Just as in the Chakraborty debacle, Ravi’s name — in a very literal sense, as rumours run rife that she is really a Christian named Joseph — will still be dragged through the mud. Most people will remember whatever they have come to know about Ravi, even if she is cleared of all the charges against her. And like Chakraborty, the hounding is likely to continue.

Clearly, it’s not enough for the courts to take notice of media trials only in retrospect. Instead, we need firmer laws on careless reporting that has the potential to ruin lives.