The novel coronavirus outbreak has cost lakhs of lives worldwide. However, as countries across the globe observe lockdowns to flatten the curve and scientists look for a cure, normalcy doesn’t seem beyond belief. It is bound to return sooner or later. But can the same be said about television news in India? The past few weeks have pushed the national discourse further into bleakness. Television news, hardly in the bounds of journalism, has shaped itself as a counterpart of social media – more inclined to carry propaganda than present facts.
On April 18, TV9 Bharatvarsh aired an ‘exclusive’ report on what the channel deemed valuable information for its audience. “Maulana Saad’s secret underground tunnel discovered in Nizamuddin Markaz” was the topic for the day. Maulana Saad is the head of the Nizamuddin Markaz faction of the Tablighi Jamaat. The Delhi police had filed an FIR against the Islamic preacher on March 31 under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Disaster Management Act for holding a religious congregation in mid-March.
TV9 reported that a 200-metre underground tunnel connects the Nizamuddin Markaz complex to Saad’s room. The tunnel gives him access to the entire complex – Lal Mahal, Baglewali masjid and Ghalib road, the channel claimed. Correspondent Manish Jha reported that the tunnel is close to 500 metres from the Nizamuddin police station and could only be accessed by Saad, his sons and close associates. He said that he found out about the tunnel from people close to Saad. During the show, images of the tunnel were flashed which the anchors claimed were shot by TV9, yet the footage carried the words ‘सांकेतिक वीडियो’ meaning ‘representational video’ and the same was also repeated twice during the show.
If the footage aired by the channel was representational, all that the viewers really know about this ‘tunnel’ is through an animated map. The broadcast carries no statements from either a member of Tablighi Jamaat, an official of the Nizamuddin Markaz or the police. TV9 used hyperbole to sow seeds of doubt without giving concrete evidence (or any evidence for that matter) on the existence of a tunnel. It said that Saad has transformed from ‘corona master’ to ‘criminal master’. What criminal activities were exactly carried out from this tunnel, the channeldoesn’t say.
Footage of video game
A reverse-image search of one of the representational graphic of the tunnel reveals that it has been picked up from the video game ‘Hills Legend: Action Horror’. The game is available on Google Play Store.
[Tip: When you want to reverse-search a photograph with heavy text or image overlap, crop them out as much as possible. In the above case, we cropped the correspondent and reverse-searched the frame on Yandex.]
At a later point in the broadcast, TV9 aired another symbolic image of the tunnel. This was found on a Romanian website.
The channel does clarify during the show that the graphics used are representational (except at 3:46 when the anchors say that the footage was recorded on channel cameras). The above exercise is only an effort to show that all ‘evidence’ of the tunnel was either picked up from the internet or manufactured.
Does a secret tunnel exist in Nizamuddin Markaz?
TV9 claimed that as soon as one enters the Markaz, a staircase can be spotted on the left and the path on the other side leads to the kitchen. “Just beside the kitchen, a lane goes up to the basement where Maulana Saad’s secret tunnel is placed. This tunnel is 200 metres in length…Maulana Saad’s personal room is located in such a perfect place that he can reach any corner using the tunnel. He can travel through the entire complex of the Markaz – Lal Mahal, Markazi Masjid and Ghalib road.”
Where is Maulana Saad’s room?
In the animated map above, TV9 placed Saad’s room adjacent to Banglewali Masjid, also known as Nizamuddin Markaz. However, “Saad’s room is inside the Markaz, it is not a separate building,” an official of the Markaz informed Alt News.
Perhaps the one aspect that the channel accurately covered in its broadcast is a staircase on the left just after the main entrance of the Markaz building. The staircase leads up to the masjid hall (prayer room) on the first floor. Saad’s room is attached to this hall, and beyond the room is his residence. Both are a part of the Markaz building.
The video below shows the location of the room. If one walks across to the other side of the masjid hall, a hoarding of Ghalib Academy (written in Urdu) can be spotted. Notice the elevation of the hall with the hoarding as the vantage point. It is clearly not on the ground level, confirming that Saad’s room is on the first floor.
The Markaz official narrates in the video that Saad has direct access to the masjid because of the room which also connects to his residence. In the absence of the room, Saad would have to travel all the way through Ghalib road and Darga road to get to Markaz building. This also raises an interesting question – if the room gives Saad direct access to the Markaz building, why would he need a tunnel?
TV9 claimed that a tunnel runs through the Markaz complex till the Lal Mahal area. Below is a Google map depiction of the area where the tunnel is claimed to be located. As per TV9, the tunnel starts from Bairoon wali building on Darga road, goes beyond the Markaz complex and connect to the Lal Mahal area on Ghalib road.
However, this is what TV9 did in its broadcast – the channel declared the ground floor of the Markaz building as an ‘underground tunnel’.
Let’s see how.
The ground floor is a large space that connects to different parts of the building. It starts from the entrance gates and runs till the extreme end of the building where the kitchen is located. This pathway was declared as the tunnel by TV9.
Once you enter the Markaz building via any of the three gates (marked G1, G2 and G3 on the map below), there are three flights of stairs. The one on the left of the pathway takes you up to the mosque on the first floor (same area where Saad’s room is located). Out of the two other staircases, which are on the right of the pathway, one connects to the eating area in the basement and second leads to Bairoon wali building on the first floor. A little further on the left of the pathway, there is a wheelchair ramp that also connects to the mosque. At the extreme end of the pathway are the kitchen and power cabin. Near the kitchen, another flight of stairs goes to the basement.
The only underground area is the basement. However, this an enclosed space. It has only two points of entry and exit – one near the kitchen and another near G2. Alt News has corroborated from multiple sources that the basement is used for serving food. There is no direct access from Saad’s room to the basement. He would have to come down to the ground floor to get here.
During the broadcast, TV9 also claimed that the tunnel goes up till Lal Mahal area. But there is a physical boundary after the kitchen/ power room. That is the end of the building. There is no way to get to the other side unless you’re Kitty Pryde from the X-Men.
In the video below, the Markaz official gives a tour of the ground floor and the basement.
To sum it up, TV9 claimed that a tunnel starting from Bairoon wali building connects to Lal Mahal area through the Markaz building. The channel also said that Saad has direct access to this tunnel via his room. Firstly, Bairoon wali building is not separate property. It is situated on the first floor of the Markaz building. Secondly, Saad’s room is also on the first floor on the other side of the building, attached to the mosque. The area which was being projected as a secret underground tunnel is actually the ground floor. The only thing situated underground is the eating area in the basement which isn’t hidden from the public eye. It can be spotted immediately upon entering the Markaz building and has only two entry-exit points – one near the Markaz entry gate and another near the kitchen on the far end of the ground floor. Lastly, it is impossible to travel from the Markaz building to the Lal Mahal area unless one can phase through walls.
TV9 flashes photographs of Lucknow Markaz
At several points during the ‘exclusive breaking news’, TV9 showed photographs of what it claimed to be Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz. Below is a screenshot where a hoarding of a cyber cafe – ‘Star Business Centre’ – is visible (marked in green) on the ground floor of a building.
As it turns out, this building is the Markaz Masjid in Lucknow’s Aminabad. Here is the Google map location of Star Business Centre. Below is an image of the mosque available on Google maps juxtaposed with a screenshot of the building flashed by TV9. The cyber cafe has been highlighted in green and an air conditioner just beside the hoarding has been highlighted using a blue arrow.
We have also compared Nizamuddin Markaz and Lucknow Markaz to show the dissimilarities between the buildings. Both images in the collage below have been taken from Google maps.
TV9 therefore aired a flimsy ‘exclusive’ report with no evidence to support the claim that Maulana Saad has been using an ‘underground tunnel’ for years to carry out secret tasks.
It is pertinent to note that mainstream media has been shaping public opinion using misleading reports and misinformation since Nizamuddin Markaz was identified as a hotspot. Earlier, Republic Bharat aired a broadcast claiming that a Markaz attendee from Madhya Pradesh hid his travel history from local authorities and subsequently died of Covid-19. The man, however, is alive and did not conceal his visit to Nizamuddin. India TV blamed a maulana for teaching Jamaatis ‘how to spit’ to spread the virus. The channel had picked up a three-year-old video to make the assertion and later took down its broadcast after our fact-check report was published. Kannada channel Public TVpublished a false report of Muslim youths in Karnataka refusing to get tested for religious reasons. The list is endless.
It is one thing for misinformation to circulate on social media but the same does irrepressible damage when promoted by mainstream media. Without showing any evidence of a tunnel inside Nizamuddin Markaz, viewers are informed about the tunnel’s existence only through a ‘representational video’ and photographs of Lucknow Markaz. The channel did not air actual footage of the property as shown in this fact-check report. The area which was referred to as an ‘underground tunnel’ by TV9 is actually the ground floor of the building.