ABP News rapped by Ofcom over biased coverage of Pulwama attack

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ABP News has been rapped by Ofcom over its coverage of the Pulwama terrorist attack in February 2019.

The media regulator received one complaint about its 40-minute discussion programme, it stated that the show was biased against Pakistan after the Pulwama attack two days prior.

This attack consisted of a suicide car bombing which had resulted in the deaths of 40 Indian soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pakistan officials denied any link between the Pakistani authorities and the attack.

In response, ABP News highlighted that the programme was broadcast against the “backdrop of a horrifying terrorist attack on Indian soldiers in Pulwama where 40 of them were killed”. ABP News said that the “material comprising the subject broadcasts were undoubtedly sensitive and charged with emotion”. It added that the context in which the programme was broadcast was that: “Public sentiment could not have been ignored at a time when the country as a whole was trying to come to terms with the attack [and] there was outrage amongst the public and the [programme] essentially capture[s] that outrage” It further added that: “It was an extraordinary situation and we felt that as a news organization it was our duty to convey to our viewers the prevailing public sentiment”.

ABP News made several arguments in relation to what it considered to be the appropriate approach to due impartiality in this case. It argued that the programme “ought to be viewed as conveying the sentiments of Indians at large rather than in the compartments of…‘partial’ or ‘impartial’”. It added that “it is not possible to apply strict binaries of partial and impartial when it comes to conveying the sentiments of a citizenry that has just suffered one of the worst terror attacks in recent history”. ABP News further added that “It was not a situation where one State view was being highlighted while a possibly contrary State view was being deliberately stifled: the broadcasts were aired to reflect the mood of the Indian citizens”. It also said that the programme involved “different common people from various walks of life” and the “comments made by them were their own and not of [the] channel’s”.

ABP News also provided oral and written representations on Ofcom’s Preliminary View that the broadcast breached Rule 5.5. It said that the programme did not breach Rule 5.5 for the following reasons. First, it said that in this edition of Khabar din Bahar, one speaker reflected the Pakistani viewpoint by stating that “Today Pakistan says, ‘we didn’t do this’ [i.e. carry out Pulwama attack]”.

Second, ABP News said that it had provided coverage of the Pulwama attack that reflected the viewpoint of the Pakistani Government in other broadcasts on ABP News and referred to five programmes broadcast on ABP News between 16 and 20 February 2019.

Ofcom considered ABP News’ views that “it is not possible to apply strict binaries of partial and impartial when it comes to conveying the sentiments of a citizenry that has just suffered one of the worst terror attacks in recent history”. However, due impartiality does not mean an equal division of time must be given to every view, or that every argument must be represented. Due impartiality can be preserved in a number of ways and it is an editorial decision for the broadcaster as to how it ensures this. We recognised that in the circumstances of the events being covered in this programme and the likely expectations of its audience, the Licensee would want to give significant coverage of what ABP News described as “prevailing public sentiment” in India, about the Pulwama attack.

However, as an Ofcom licensee it was necessary, taking account of the subject and nature of the programme, for ABP News to take action to preserve due impartiality by reflecting in the broadcast programme alternative viewpoints, such as that of the Pakistani Government, over responsibility for the attack. It failed to do so.

Ofcom considered that the various contextual factors cited by ABP News did not mitigate the absence of alternative perspectives about Pakistan’s involvement in the Pulwama attack.

The channel was found in breach of Rule 5.5.

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