Character assasination by Telugu media and its fallout

BY PADMAJA SHAW| IN Media Practice | 03/04/2018
In pursuit of scandal, a Telangana channel invades the privacy of upright police officers who are then removed from crucial cases. Did the channel also serve a political agenda in the process,

The embattled police officer--Sunitha Reddy


Regulation? Public outrage? Suspension of transmissions? Or all three? What will jolt the television news channels to their senses when they depend on scandal-mongering for their survival? What can the victims do about repeat offenders?

As reported elsewhere already, TV9, the leader in the Telugu news television market, followed by other channels, had gone after a senior police officer, Sunitha  Reddy, the Additional Superintendent of Police of the Anti-Corruption Bureau in the Government of Telangana. Reddy, according to sources close to her, is going through a troubled marriage and has been trying for a divorce from her husband Surender from whom she has  been separated for five months.

Mallikarjun Reddy, a Circle Inspector in the Bureau with whom she worked on several cases, was on a visit to Hyderabad some time ago. They went out for dinner and he was dropping her home. It was around midnight when TV9 (and another cameraman) lay in wait outside Sunitha Reddy’s home to confront them. They were  persuaded by her estranged husband to do this .

Mallikarjun Reddy was leaving after dropping her when Sunitha Reddy’s mother, husband and others assaulted him in the parking lot, an act duly recorded by the cameras. They then went upstairs, barged into her apartment, into her bedroom and bathroom and chased her. This was done by TV9 cameramen and those of another channel that could not be identified. There are several videos still online but I am not posting them here to avoid giving more mileage to them.

"They then went upstairs, barged in to Reddy’s apartment, into her bedroom and bathroom and chased her"


The channels began to dub this as “caught red-handed”.For the next three to four days, almost all the channels went on a spree of character assassination, digging out Ms Reddy’s past and painting her as an immoral person. Though TV9 itself seems to have removed its footage from the internet, there are dozens of other videos uploaded by TV5, V6, and many other fly-by-night television channels that have proliferated on the internet.


Vicious misuse of media power 

The question that arises in any viewer’s mind is, “Why are television channels so interested in the personal life of an officer?” And as story says quite aptly, “It seems that now any disgruntled husband can use a Telugu news channel to conduct a sting on his wife and turn it into breaking news.” 

On January 24, both Sunitha Reddy and Mallikarjun Reddy were suspended by the Telangana government for indulging in an “illicit affair”.  Who are these two officers who attracted such special attention?

Sunitha Reddy has the reputation of being a dynamic police officer who has relentlessly worked with courage on some of the most difficult anti-corruption cases over the last few years. She broke the massive Miyapur land scam case leading to several arrests and the exposure of politicians and businessmen with close political links in Telangana , 

She also played a central role in the vote-for-note case where TDP legislators were caught with cash in their attempts to buy votes in the Legislative Council elections. Mr Chandrababu Naidu’s voice recordings of telephone conversations were also in the media following the raids that were conducted.

"The question that arises in any viewer’s mind is, Why are television channels so interested in the personal life of an officer? "


However, the legislator who was the face of the TDP in Telangana, Revanth Reddy, who was caught in the cross-fire of the vote-for-note case, defected to the Congress when he saw a political understanding emerging between the leaders of TDP and TRS.   

Mallikarjun Reddy, her colleague in the same department, earlier worked on many of the same cases till his transfer. In addition, he is also believed to be a part of the SIT team investigating cases against Nayeemuddin, a surrendered Naxalite who became a police informer and a bigtime racketeer and gangster with deep connections with politicians and police officials.

This, the Telangana government denied repeatedly to avoid a CBI probe, but had to suspend 25 policemen of various ranks following a PIL filed by the CPI leader, K Narayana. Nayeem’s career as gangster was the best kept secret in the media, but as soon as he was shot dead in an ‘encounter’ by the Telangana police, the flood gates of very knowledgeable coverage opened. The case is believed to be in its last stages according to the press statements of senior police officers. 


Fallout of character assassination on important cases

But in the frantic coverage given to the “illicit affair” that ‘outed’ the two key officers investigating several important anti-corruption cases, only one case, the most politically insignificant one perhaps - the vote-for-note case - was mentioned by most channels reports.

"Two officers who were investigating politically very significant cases have been removed from their positions based on accusations about ‘their personal relationship’"


Either way, the vicious character assassination indulged in by the channels is strange, to say the least. The question of adult women having the autonomy to lead their lives without either the media khaps or the family/community-led khaps loudly intervening is one aspect of the problem this episode flags.

On the face of it, the involvement of Sunitha’s mother and estranged husband gives this narrative public legitimacy as a purely personal mess in the officers’ lives. In Rohith Vemula’s case too, the media dug up the feckless father who abandoned his wife and children, had no role in educating or looking after their welfare, to testify that he is not a Dalit. This was used to question Radhika Vemula’s (Rohith’s mother) identity as a Dalit, though being a Dalit, she lived in a Dalit basti and brought up the children as Dalits. With this single effort of the media, till today the politicians and the Vice-Chancellor of the university responsible for the persecution of Rohith have gone scot free.

In this case, two officers who were investigating politically very significant cases have been removed from their positions based on accusations about ‘their personal relationship’.


Remember Uma Khurana?

Another issue is the truth or otherwise of the perception that is created by the media about individuals whose private lives they have no business to interfere in. This case reminds one of the Uma Khurana case in Delhi, where a story was spun about a school teacher that she was enticing girls from her school into prostitution racket. Khurana was assaulted by parents at her school, arrested and spent a fortnight in jail.

After all the trauma for her, for the parents, and the school, it was discovered that the reporter of a new channel ‘Live India’ merely did this fake story to bring his channel quickly into public prominence, under the able guidance of Sudhir Chaudhary, who now heads Zee News. 

It was also the first time a news television channel was ordered off air for a month by a court in India. The Delhi police, interestingly, charged three people. Prakash Singh, reporter of Live India, and two other associates were charged with criminal conspiracy, cheating and forgery, but the persons in charge in the newsroom who allowed such blatantly criminal reports to be aired in the first place without any due diligence were let off It nearly destroyed the life of a person.


Redress against offenders is elusive

This brings us to the debate about the regulatory regime for news broadcasters in India. When an aggrieved individual wants to seek redress, there is no clear regulatory structure that is in place. The News Broadcasters Association has some 65 channels as members when the number of licensed news channels is around 389.

The Prasar Bharati system, the News Broadcasters Association and the Cable Regulation Act all have some programming code. While Prasar Bharati has been sticking to the code out of habit of a long tradition, the new channels have transgressed their limits time and again, in the name of free speech.

The Leveson Report instituted in the UK in 2012 to study the nexus between the media and politics says the content “code must take into account the importance of freedom of speech, the interests of the public (including the public interest in detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety, protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being seriously misled) and the rights of individuals. Specifically, it must cover standards of: (a) conduct, especially in relation to the treatment of other people in the process of obtaining material; (b) appropriate respect for privacy where there is no sufficient public interest justification for breach and(c) accuracy, and the need to avoid misrepresentation.”

If we look at the assault on the privacy of Sunitha Reddy and Mallikarjun Reddy in this instance, it is debatable what public interest is served by intruding into the bedroom and the bathroom of a senior officer in the middle of the night. How is their private life supposed to impact their professional work? If indeed it does, is the answer to be found in unfettered media intruding with cameras into their homes?

There is also the issue of methods adopted in getting information. The News of the World (which closed down after the national scandal that sent senior editors to jail) kind of media did precisely this sort of intrusion into personal lives and harassment of people that provoked the investigation into the media’s deep nexus with powerful political entities. Much of the tabloid style sensationalism was either in aid of political/business friends or to create a climate for achieving their goals.

Leveson says in this context, “I have no doubt that, to a greater or lesser extent with a wider range of titles, there has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected (perhaps in a way that can never be remedied), all the while heedless of the public interest.”

About the relationship of the press with politics Leveson says, “Taken as a whole, the evidence clearly demonstrates that, over the last 30-35 years and probably much longer, the political parties of UK national Government and of UK official Opposition, have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest... In part, it has been a matter of going too far in trying to control the supply of news and information to the public in return for the hope of favourable treatment by sections of the press, to a degree and by means beyond what might be considered to be the fair and reasonable (albeit partisan) conduct of public debate.”

It is impossible to believe that this kind of media intrusion is done merely for TRPs. Not always. TRPs was the myth that prevailed about News of the World also till the scandal broke open the depth of the rot in the system. The tabloid style coverage builds a captive audience which then is plied with news that has significant political impact, as in this instance, while appearing like the usual sensationalism. This appears in various forms like sex videos of politicians during election season to discredit them (Hardik Patel case). Not all such media sensationalism can be dismissed simplistically as hunt for TRPs, even as that too happens as in the case of Uma Khurana. 

"It is impossible to believe that this kind of media intrusion is done merely for TRPs"


Whether it is TV9, TV5, X, Y, Z, or Fox News, it is the successful market leaders who appear to be playing a central role in creating such a news market. They already have the TRPs, which makes them the market leaders. The British system recognised this when it instituted the Leveson inquiry. We need to do so too.

India needs a regulatory body with judicial powers that mandatorily covers all news channels/platforms. It should be made a licensing condition that all channels contribute a one-time sum as corpus for the regulator along with the licence fee, and all licensed channels are bound by the code of ethics and conduct that is drafted through a consultation process of the media practitioners.

The corpus should ensure the financial independence of the regulatory body both from the state and the channels. Any penalties awarded must be respected and repeat transgressions must result in enforceable disciplinary action.

Freedom of speech cannot be exercised by the media corporations without first safeguarding public interest and the privacy of individuals. When the media transgress this for their own purposes, they have to be held to account.


Video of Sunitha Reddy’s raids on Director, Department of Factories:

NTV interview with SIT chief Anjani Kumar



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