Media in a banana republic

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 13/01/2011
Why are news channels so diligently following the guidelines of the NBA and the Cable Regulation Act on the Telangana issue alone?
Why does a democratically elected government want to prevent media from covering a major political issue festering in the state for the last 60 years, asks PADMAJA SHAW

Nearly a year ago, on 3 January 2010, under the directions of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, Osmania University witnessed one of the biggest pro-Telangana student rallies.  Some 150,000 students with identity cards arrived from colleges all over Telangana and dispersed without incident at the appointed time after the rally. Given that this came after weeks of siege of the campus by security forces, it was a heartening exercise in democratic politics. 

December 2010. In the weeks before the announcement of Srikrishna Committee report, the campus was once again locked down by special police, rapid action force and other security personnel at all access points. The neighbouring localities were put under close watch. The campus road was reminiscent of the Wagah border! But it was not the Wagah border. The FORCE was deployed to battle a bunch of impassioned young students from the Telangana districts. In the name of preventing outsiders from entering the campus, no buses, media vehicles or cars were allowed to enter the campus. The university was compelled to close the campus messes. The students still on campus had no access to food and basic necessities. Politicians and rights activists were arrested if they attempted to enter the campus.

After the Committee report was made public, the state government has invoked the Cable Regulation Act and News Broadcasters Association guidelines and warned the electronic media against covering the activities on Osmania campus. The diktat was to avoid telecast of live/repeat footage of violent incidents and provocative speeches. But the result has been to black out more or less all coverage of the ground level response to the Srikrishna Committee report by the Telugu News TV channels for a few days. According to news reports, Raj TV channel, which is being run by Telengana Rashtra Samiti leader K Chandrashekhar Rao’s family on lease, was warned several times by the government through the license holder to refrain from showing visuals of the agitation. They have taken to flashing breaking news in large font without visuals.
This makes one wonder why a democratically elected government would want to prevent media from covering a major political issue that has been festering in the state for the last 60 years? There was no television in Telangana when the 1969 separation movement took off.

It is interesting that the state government has been issuing statements that there is no police on the campus. The political leaders and the representatives of AP Civil Liberties Committee have been prevented from entering the campus (by who one wonders). Because there was little visual coverage of the events, the truth about the events is not coming out in public domain.

This raises the question: Why are the 16 or so news channels so diligently following the guidelines of the NBA and the Cable Regulation Act in the Telangana issue alone? Couple of days after Srikrishna Committee report was made public, there was a mafia style killing of Maddelacheruvu Suryanarayana in the heart of Hyderabad. The Telugu news channels went to town giving saturation coverage, repeatedly showing the bullet-ridden body and the lolling head of the dead man, violating the NBA guidelines and the Cable Regulation Act provisions for moderation.

Of the 14 or so Telugu news channels only 5 are members of the News Broadcasters Association. The remaining 9 are not. The big ones have more or less been back-peddling on the Telangana issue as the owners of the media houses are from Andhra essentially backing integrationist politicians. The Hyderabad Police Commissioner, Mr. A.K. Khan, asserts that he merely wants the channels to adhere to the provisions of Cable Act. The response of the channels has been to go for an all or none reading of the statement. They prefer to see coverage as live uplinks from the OB vans, unfiltered and un-moderated or unrelenting studio discussions with rabble-rousers. It would have been both a challenge and an education for the channels to finally find the middle path of well-informed and fair reporting of a problematic issue. Two very senior journalists have expressed the feeling that the channel heads are exploiting the statements of the Commissioner to scuttle coverage.

The channels and the government seem to have come to an understanding that by bottling the campus activity and by news black out they can effectively remove Telangana from public agenda. The state administration seems to have come to the conclusion that there is no Telangana movement without media coverage! The only reports that have surfaced on the media are those that show the agitators and students as hooligans, thereby discrediting the movement and the University. It is not yet clear if the hooliganism shown is by hired political goons or by students. No political party including TRS has taken the trouble of calling for peaceful protests that refrain from attacking innocent bystanders and business establishments. Focusing on violence and ignoring the issues raised has been a tried and tested technique used against the CPI (ML) groups for decades. Media effectively deflect the issue into a law and order problem by adopting this strategy and provide a justification for the use of force by the state.

One might add, after several rounds of recent High Court judgments, there is no attempt to implement the Cable Regulation Act by constituting advisory committees at the local and state level to monitor media and deal with complaints arising from the telecast of objectionable matter.  The Act does not empower the Commissioner to unilaterally decide on which content to regulate. The Act prescribes a process through which this is to be done. But the Police Commissioner found instant success in controlling the coverage of the Telangana issue just by holding a press conference and a few strategic phone calls! If media houses accept this for short-term gain, the spectre of this will haunt them in days to come.

Thanks to Ratan Tata, today we have a re-popularised phrase to describe what’s happening not only in our polity but also in our media – Banana Republic! As in a typical banana republic, the media in our democracy are ‘allowed’ by the state to show lumpen entertainment, crime, gore and sex bordering on pornography. When it comes to important political issues like the securitization of large parts of the country in the name of maintaining law and order, corporate-politician nexus that brutally suppresses people’s protests, the state plays a highly proactive role in ensuring that no civil rights groups or media are around to bring alternative perspectives into public view.  Denial of the existence of an issue by insulating it from public gaze can only result in bringing untold misery to the people, and escalating it to unmanageable proportions.

For about a week, by turning the Osmania University campus into an open-air prison, and by disallowing any information to come out of the campus, by repeatedly invoking the Cable Regulation Act for this, the state has once again proved itself to be a banana republic and not a mature democracy. The media houses, in their self-interest, do not seem to recognize that it is a banana republic they are helping build and profiting from. 

Subsequent to this, partly inspired by the protests of rights groups and senior journalists, the channels have formed a Telugu News Broadcasters’ Association. This was followed a day or two later by the formation of Cable Operators Association. Both the associations have vowed to provide the best possible coverage of the Telangana movement. It would be a great step forward for the Telugu news media if these new initiatives pave the way for independence and self-regulation, Cable Regulation Act or not.  Given their entrenched economic and political interests, it is to be seen if media houses can transcend the urges of self-interest to self-regulate and stop playing footsie with the state.

Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More