We’ve all heard about the power of the press. It pales in comparison to the power of the Punjabi press.
At least that’s the view of an increasing number of people who say they have become victimized by a highly influential — and what they call irresponsible — ethnic media in the Greater Toronto Area.
Take the case of a 33-year-old bride who landed in Toronto after her husband sponsored her arrival from India. She left him within weeks, alleging abuse, and the spurned husband went to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, saying she had married him only to come to Canada.
When the local Punjabi media got wind of it, they sided with the husband. They talked about the shameless bride for weeks, whipping up public sentiment against her. Her photographs were published in a slew of Punjabi newspapers and callers to radio talk shows demanded just one thing: deport her.
“It was a public trial,” says Shalini Konanur, executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario.
Konanur says the young bride was never contacted by the media and was so terrified she refused to leave her home.
“The media is becoming judge and jury,” Konanur says of the more than dozen Punjabi daily radio shows, as many weekly newspapers, two dailies and several TV shows. “That’s not their role.”
Lately the Punjabi media, primarily based out of Mississauga and Brampton, has come under scrutiny in the wake of several recent high-profile cases of alleged marriage fraud — a topic they talk about incessantly in the community.
Social activists and so-called victims criticize their reporting — not in a newsgathering News of the World sense but more in their over-the-top treatment of certain issues.
Konanur says it needs to be reined in. “There have been too many such cases in the recent past. It ruins lives, especially of vulnerable, young women.”
That’s not how Punjabi talk show hosts see it.
Joginder Bassi is the undisputed king of local Punjabi media.
A tall, lumbering man, Bassi has two weekend TV shows and publishes a weekly newspaper. But his most influential gig is Gaunda Punjab, a radio show that has been on air for nearly 30 years and boasts a daily following of more than 150,000 listeners.
He acknowledges he is controversial and outspoken. But “I, or my show, wouldn’t have been around for 30 years if it hadn’t been a fair show,” he says.
Parduman Grewal, one of Bassi’s fans, says it’s only because of Bassi that the issue of fraudulent marriages is being openly talked about in the community.
“No one wanted to talk about it,” says Grewal, who runs a chain of grocery stores in Brampton. “Bassi, in his typical blustery style, has got people to understand how it is not good for the community.”
But in Amanpreet Dhaliwal’s view, raising awareness about an issue is one thing; prying into private lives, twisting the truth and ambushing people for sensational journalism is another.
The 23-year-old Brampton woman claims she was falsely accused of marriage fraud on Bassi’s show about a month ago, a story that was eagerly picked up by other Punjabi shows and newspapers.
Following an arranged marriage and her arrival in Canada in March 2010, Dhaliwal says she left her husband, Ravinder Singh Dhaliwal, after he refused to get treatment for erectile dysfunction and became abusive. She was shocked, she says, when she heard the Punjabi media talking about her.
(Dhaliwal says her husband notified the media; he did not return calls from the Star.)
Then one day, the phone rang at home and someone from Gaunda Punjab spoke to her 80-year-old grandfather. In another call the next day, she says her grandfather was unwittingly put on a live radio show.
What followed, she adds, was a chaotic half-hour where angry callers, and her husband, accused her of marriage fraud, while her grandfather was unable to say anything coherent.
Dhaliwal says she wanted to quit her job, stay home and hide for the rest of her life. “We got so many calls from people, asking us what was going on.”
Bassi’s version is different.
He says Dhaliwal’s grandfather was aware he was on air. “He wanted to be there . . . he was on the show for at least 30 minutes.”
In the days after Bassi’s show, four other weeklies picked up the story.
In the Punjabi community, people openly debate the belligerence of talk show hosts, their alleged slanderous remarks and biased reporting.
But few, if any, complain.
Ron Cohen, national chair of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, says the board hasn’t received any complaints regarding Punjabi media’s handling of the marriage fraud issue.
People would complain if they didn’t fear more victimization, insists Konanur.
“Many of these victims of media hype are new immigrants . . . they don’t know what to do,” she says. “They are already in abusive relationships. And to be demonized and accused of getting married to come to Canada just kills them.”
Jaspal Singh Shetra, editor of the South Asian Observer, an online news website, says ethnic media need a monitoring agency more than a regulatory body.
“Many of them are not trained journalists,” says Shetra. “They get carried away with issues and don’t look at both sides.”
“I can’t believe half the things I hear on radio shows.”