Press freedom in Andhra Pradesh

BY s r ramanujan| IN Media Freedom | 09/08/2006
There were two unrelated instances last month in Andhra Pradesh concerning media which reflect poorly on the image of the government.

S R Ramanujan

There were two unrelated instances last month in Andhra Pradesh concerning media which reflect poorly on the image of the government.

First, government hospitals in the state became a ?No entry? zone for  mediapersons. No, there is no bar for their treatment, but they can¿t ?treat? the hospitals¿ ill-health with their exposes. Of course, this has nothing to do with what is going on in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) nor Anbumani¿s tantrums in playing the quota politics of his father Dr S Ramadoss. This is purely a ?state-grown? initiative.

The state government has issued a GO Rt No. 422 ostensibly to improve the quality of government hospitals and one of the clauses is that the authorities should restrict the entry of pressmen in the hospitals by creating a ?Press Room? in the hospitals so that the mediamen are confined to that room instead of snooping into the wards or other areas that may give ?meat? to the news stories with all the ?festering wounds? of the hospitals.

As reported in the local media, this restriction was imposed because media persons are entering labour rooms and taking photographs (!) and obstructing doctors from performing their duties. So, the GO says ?A separate Press Room shall be created in every major hospital in the State. All media should assemble only in this room for any information. Under any circumstances, they should not go inside labour rooms, operation theatres, post-operative wards, ICUs etc. Patients and attendants besides the hospital staff can be interviewed by the Press in this room? (Deccan Chronicle July 30).

If I may take liberty with the famed theory, every reaction will have an action. In this case, the action took place in January this year when a tribal pregnant woman was denied entry into a hospital which bears the name of the great saviour of the poor and downtrodden - Gandhi. Yes, the tribal woman delivered a baby in the front yard of the Gandhi hospital, Secunderabad with the help of her relatives holding a piece of cloth around her when she was in labour pains to provide the minimum privacy. This was the story of the month for regional television channels and for the print media to the great embarrassment of the government which swears by the ?Aam Admi?.

The chief minister and the health minister were ?appalled?, ?agitated? and ?ashamed? over the story, and what comes naturally to them over such shocks is to appoint a committee. The committee, in order to improve the ¿health¿ of the hospitals, came out with a series of suggestions and one of the suggestions was to keep the Press at a respectable distance from the hospitals. After all, the problem arises only when the people are made to see the uglier side of the hospitals which in turn affects their health. If they are made to see what the hospitals want them to see, everything will be fine. This must be the ¿noble¿ objective of the government in creating ?Press Rooms? a la ?Labour Rooms? in the hospitals so that the journalists can deliver ?healthy stories? for the consumption of the people!  

The second instance of scuttled press freedom was, of course, from a different quarter, but well within the control of the government of the day in a way. It is not just the government alone that wants to hide things from media glare. Its appointees in the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) have gone a step ahead in terrorising the mediamen to ensure that the seamier side of the administration like deviation from the Agama sastras, commercialization of the Lord and lackadaisical approach to evangelism on the hills are not given prominence in the media. The temple administration wants the local media to confine itself to the coverage of VIP visits and the fattening of ¿Hundi¿ with diamond and gold to sustain its reputation as the world¿s richest temple. To understand why and how the TTD officials could act with impunity in taking into illegal custody a media team from Bangalore for three days, we must know a little bit of background of the TTD.

When the conversion controversy broke out maligning the image of the Rajasekara Reddy government, the temple administration got panicky and got into the act by (ab)using the priests of the temple and a section of the employees to carry a delegation to the chief minister and to deny the charges of conversion atop the hills.

It was at this point of time, a Bangalore-based television reporter Om Prakash Agarwal assisted by an AP contact Damodaram Viswanath descended on the scene allegedly to take shots of the ?Cross? on some residential doors of the employees and on the trees at Balaji nagar on the hills to nail the denials of temple top brass. In his complaint to the National Human Rights Commission, Agarwal narrates the plight that awaited him at the hands of the Temple Security officials.

According to the complaint, the TTD Vigilance Officer, besides confiscating his camera, mike, channel ID and a bag containing his cloths and cash, manhandled him and his local escort mercilessly. The duo was then taken to the Jt EO, Dharma Reddy where he was allegedly threatened with a loaded pistol to make a confessional statement to the effect that it was he (Agarwal) who painted the ?Cross? over the doors and the trees to implicate the TTD. Since the team refused to give such a statement, they were handed over to the Tirumala Police who interrogated them in detention. Finally, they were let off by the Police as they couldn¿t find credible evidence to support Dharma Reddy¿s theory.

Besides the highhanded behaviour of the TTD to protect the interests of the ruling party in the state which was at the receiving end of the conversion controversy, what was deplorable was the role of the local media that looked the other way. When Agarwal and Damodar were produced before the local media by Reddy & Co, the media simply reported the official version without making even a feeble attempt to know what Agarwal had to say on the episode, especially when he was paraded before them.

When the duo was in illegal detention of the TTD for three full days, there was none to stand by them. Was it because they were representing a channel (Delhi-based Sudarshan TV) that had neither viewership nor clout? In contrast, one is reminded of the brouhaha the CNN-IBN made for days together when its team was attacked and the vehicle burnt in Lucknow by political thugs.

The moral is: ? Show me the channel and we¿ll tell you what press freedom is!?


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