Capping a steady erosion of press freedom

BY ninan| IN Media Freedom | 10/11/2003
The arrests ordered of the top echelon of the Hindu are merely the spectacular capping of an insidious trend pursued by both the Central and state governments.

  A  Hoot editorial

The Tamil Nadu Assembly’s orders of arrest against the Hindu’s publisher, editors and journalists is the culmination of a serious of smaller assaults on the press and its capacity to function that chief minister Jayalalithaa has been periodically inflicting. They never made the nation as a whole sit up before, but did their bit to cripple the functioning of the fourth estate in that state. Since the AIADMK   came to power in May 2001, the Tamil Nadu Government has filed a large number of defamation cases, criminal and civil, against an array of publications. The Hindu faces 16 criminal defamation cases and one civil defamation suit, all of them, according to the paper, completely baseless. The CM’s antipathy to the Hindu became further apparent when she declined to attend the newspaper’s 125th anniversary celebrations in September this year, inaugurated by the prime minister.


In the recent past cases have been also filed against  Dinakaran, the Statesman, Dinamalar, Dinamani, the New Indian Express  and Junior Vikatan. There have been a series of police raids and arrests against the staff of the Tamil magazine `Nakkeeran’, which do not seem to follow the book of law. When the AIADMK was in power the last time, during 1991-96, over 100 defamation cases were filed against media organizations and journalists. All these cases were withdrawn at one stroke just before the elections. 

 Cases apart, police harassment of journalists occurs with alacrity in the state. Confrontation between the state and the press began soon after Jayalalithaa was re-elected as chief minister in May 2001.  Shortly before the famous clash of video footage recorded by Sun TV and that recorded by the police at the time of the arrest of DMK Supremo and former chief minister M Karunanidhi, a Sun TV reporter was arrested. This occurred when a former DMK Minister who was in charge of food supplies in the DMK regime, marched to a godown to take out samples of rice in his constituency to show that the rice was not rotting as claimed by the AIADMK regime (there have been a slew of charges made by Jayalalithaa against the previous administration on issues that strongly affect the public like food, water, civic projects, etc). The reporter concerned had gone to police station for some information and was detained and not released. Journalists protesting at this arrest were lathi-charged.

 By August 2001 The state government in Tamilnadu has begun to give TV channels a tape-recorded version of Assembly proceedings instead of allowing media free access inside the house.  The freedom given to journalists to collect news thus  began to be  steadily eroded. The chief minister’s antipathy to the press is  partly an outcome of the polarised loyalties that some of the journalists in this state have to the two major parties the DMK and the AIADMK. That makes the state government mistrust journalists who are not allied with the ruling party. But it is also because the chief minister seems inclined to use the police to keep the press in line, and to use her government machinery to restrict access to sources of news including the proceedings in the state assembly.

 Tamil Nadu is not the only place in India where the press is under attack. The Central government kept Iftikhar Gilani in jail for seven months without explanation, apology or compensation. And the number of states in which journalists are besieged is growing. In UP former Chief Minister Mayawati kept them on leash, with her information directorate drawing up lists of  journalists considered friendly to her government, and those considered not. If you were in the wrong list you could be dropped from official press briefings or asked to vacate your government house, or just become a public target of the CM’s wrath.

In Kerala, journalists are increasingly becoming the targets of police, politicians and the mafia. Ever since the present Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) came to power, there have been several instances of journalists being denied access to their sources, police harassment for anti-government reports, and false cases being instituted. The anti-media move began with Speaker Vakkom Purushotaman banning television cameras from recording the Assembly proceedings and imposing new   restrictions. Chief Minister AK Antony regularly complains about what he sees as a lack of media objectivity. In the case of the tribal agitation at Muthanga attacks upon cameramen and journalists covering the agitation led the Kerala Journalists Union to file a petition before the Press Council of India earlier this year.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s honeymoon with Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh, newspapers which defended his record during last years riots, ended shortly after he was re-elected and he began to take it out on the media at large. Like Jayalalitha’s dispensation in Chennai his officers and ministers began to realise that they were not expected to talk to the press.  Entry for journalists to the secretariat became suitably restricted.  Modi then discontinued the shuttle service between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar for journalists which enabled Ahmedabad scribes to cover the government, with  the  state capital located  30 km away.

Official India loves to boast of its democracy and its free press. But in many parts of the country, both are being more frequently tested than they should be in a society committed to democracy.


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