“During this lockdown, why does every crowd gather only near mosques?” journalist Arnab Goswami recently asked on the Indian news channel, Republic TV.
The well-known anchor was referring to a crowd that had gathered last month near a railway station that happens to be near a mosque in Mumbai, the capital of the western state of Maharashtra.
Local media reports said they were migrant workers desperate to get back to their towns and villages after a nationwide lockdown was imposed to try and combat the spread of the coronavirus.
The lockdown had left many of them jobless. They assembled there after hearing rumours that the government had finally arranged transport for their return home.
Just days earlier, similarly anxious workers rioted in neighbouring Gujarat state, but the media did not link it to any particular religion, as was the case in Mumbai.
As news website Newslaundry’s Atul Chaurasia noted on his show: “The Mumbai incident once again brought to the fore the diseased, sectarian face of channels, because in the background they had spotted a mosque.”
Critics have accused a large section of Indian media of blaming Muslims for the spread of the coronavirus, which so far has infected more than 82,000 people in the country and caused 2,649 deaths.
Islamophobia during a pandemic
Coronavirus worries took centre stage in India by the third week of March but the preceding months had already been turbulent.
Pan-India protests erupted in December 2019 against a new citizenship law championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, that many deemed discriminatory.
Anti-Muslim mob violence shook Delhi in February after supporters of a governing party leader attacked peaceful sit-ins against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
As the world was coming to terms with the sweeping pandemic and its effects, sections of news media remained embroiled in divisive debates until March 24, the day police cleared out the last vestiges of the anti-CAA protest sites led by Muslims in New Delhi.
A nationwide lockdown was then implemented at midnight on March 24.
By late March, Muslims became the focus of media attention after it emerged that six people who died from COVID-19 in southern Telangana state had attended an event held by a Muslim religious group called Tablighi Jamaat from March 13-15 in New Delhi.
Muslims faced further vilification in the first week of April after a government spokesperson publicly linked a spike in coronavirus cases to the Jamaat event, which was also attended by preachers from other Muslim countries.
Since then, the government seemed to have singled out the Jamaat at most official briefings.
“The media chose not to ask the government why foreign participants were not tested at airports, why Delhi and the central government and police agencies gave permission for the gathering, which was denied by the Maharashtra government,” activist Kavita Krishnan told Al Jazeera.
Trending Twitter hashtags, such as #CoronaJihad, soon appeared on TV screens.
“The media are distorting facts to suggest that every Muslim belongs to Tablighi Jamaat, every Muslim is responsible for the coronavirus, and coronavirus is a synonym for Muslim,” said political analyst Shahid Siddiqui.
Siddiqui called the group “irresponsible, callous and foolish” for holding a mass meeting when social distancing advisories were already widely disseminated but stressed that on March 13 the government had said COVID-19 was “not a health emergency” and the lockdown was only announced days after the Jamaat event.
He said he was “shocked” at journalists pinning the blame for the outbreak on Jamaat, and by association, Muslims.
Senior health journalist Vidya Krishnan is a rare voice in the media pointing to the government’s “inordinate” focus on the Jamaat.
Krishnan explains that the reason a large percentage of coronavirus-positive cases in India was being linked to the group is because of aggressive contact tracing of Jamaat attendees by the government, whereas citizens who have crossed paths with patients unconnected to the Jamaat were not being tracked and tested with equal determination.
“What the Indian government is doing during the pandemic is just the next step in the kind of persecution of minorities that has been happening under the Modi administration,” she told Al Jazeera last month.
“You cannot isolate the February riots in Delhi from what’s happening in everyday media briefings where the Health Ministry and Home Ministry are actively painting a target on the backs of one community.”
A spate of false reports on social media and news media about Muslims spitting, roaming naked or defecating in public were later debunked.
The falsehoods are so numerous that even police departments and other official agencies have been countering or correcting tweets by news organisations and their representatives.
While studying debunked COVID-19 stories in India, University of Michigan associate professor Joyojeet Pal and his co-researchers found a rise in misinformation about Muslims from about the end of March.
In the mainstream media, “the truly insidious part is the way in which Islamophobia is suggested, without explicit mention,” Pal said.
“This could include the selection of participants for TV debates, which allows an anchor to claim neutrality, but have participants indulge in extreme claims that go unchallenged. Or the use of imagery – like the focus on a mosque near a train station where migrants gathered, as if to suggest that Muslims had something to do with the gathering.”
On April 10, on Zee News, anchor Sudhir Chaudhary openly accused Muslims of impeding India’s coronavirus war.
Among the evidence he offered was a video of a Muslim-dominated area of New Delhi – he conceded that hardly anyone was visible in his visuals of the lockdown from this otherwise always-packed locality, but still added: “These people defy the law just so that the infection will spread rapidly across the country.”
Earlier this month, police from the southern state of Kerala filed a case against Chaudhary for making incendiary remarks about the Muslim minority on his show.
India Today network aired a so-called “investigation”, titled Madrasa Hotspots, on Islamic schools in and around New Delhi, revealing that they misled police about the number of children in their care during the lockdown and rebuking them for renouncing social distancing and online classes.
The report did not acknowledge what filmmaker-writer-activist Saba Dewan pointed out – that “madrasas are for orphans or children of the very poor” and therefore, far from having personal computers, internet connections and spacious homes, those children might starve if sent away during the lockdown.
Dewan added: “There’s no data showing that madrasas are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and not, for instance, boarding houses run for poor but upper-caste Hindu children in Varanasi (in Uttar Pradesh state) that are also congested. The decision to put the spotlight on madrasas alone was absolutely Islamophobic.”
The pushback against such journalism has been occasionally intense this month.
Rahul Kanwal, who anchored Madrasa Hotspots, was criticised on Twitter for airing the show.
“There are so many hotspots in India – we aren’t naming them to link them with a particular community. Not only is such a usage Islamophobic, it also associates the incidence of COVID-19 with stigma, it criminalises victims of a disease,” Kavita Krishnan told Al Jazeera.
“There’s been so little testing in India, which also creates room for this dangerous stigma. Dangerous because it deters people from coming forward to seek testing and help, for fear of being tarred by the same brush of crime or shame,” Krishnan added.
The media’s portrayal of Muslims as potential vectors of the virus has had real consequences.
Reports have emerged of Muslims being beaten, vegetable vendors chased from Hindu communities, a pregnant woman losing her baby after a hospital turned her away because she was Muslim and another hospital segregating COVID-19 patients by religion.
‘Seeped into their soul’
Goswami, Chaudhary, Kanwal, news agency ANI’s Smita Prakash, India TV’s Rajat Sharma and News Nation’s Deepak Chaurasia, were contacted for comments by Al Jazeera. Only Chaurasia agreed to be interviewed.
Asked if his TV show questioned why no other Indian gathering has been subject to the meticulous contact tracing done with Jamaat attendees, he said: “If what you say about contact tracing is true, then it’s my request to the government.”
“We have raised the matter of every other such group, the media has raised these matters,” Chaurasia insisted, citing criticism of a singer who defied self-isolation to attend functions in March and a BJP politician who was at one such event.
But media avoided villainising non-Muslim communities for the multiple other political, social and religious congregations.
The BJP’s Lalitha Kumaramangalam disagrees with criticism of the government in this matter, but says that the pandemic coverage is biased. “Unfortunately, Tablighi Jamaat belong to a particular community and have to be called out.”
She added: “I have good friends among Muslims. My father’s favourite junior was called Ali Mohammed. Ali Maama [uncle] was our favourite, so it’s not that I’m prejudiced against Muslims. Unfortunately, too many from that community are behaving badly, and bad news seems to sell.” She later said she had heard that falsehoods were being floated about Muslim misbehaviour.
Salman Anees Soz of the main opposition Congress party said he believed the Jamaat issue was being kept on the boil to distract Indians from the government’s “bungled response [to COVID-19]”.
“Some years back, I would have said maybe the media just wants to be on the right side of the government. Now I think many important media outlets genuinely believe Islamophobia is the way to go,” he told Al Jazeera.
Soz says while such media are acting as instruments of the government, “at some level, Islamophobia has seeped into their soul”.