Relentless coverage fanned Telangana flames

BY Madabhushi Sridhar| IN Media Practice | 15/12/2009
If all Telugu news channels were to shut down for ten days, peace would be restored in every nook and corner of the State.
MADABHUSHI SRIDHAR compares the Telangana agitations of 1969 and 2009 and finds that the presence of private TV channels fanned the flames this time around. Pix:

This time round, the agitation for the separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh (formed in 1956) has not been as serious as it was in 1969. However, what has made a major difference in 2009 has been the presence of a vibrant media in terms of its coverage. Because, in 1969, ninety per cent of the print-media was in the hands of non-Telangana owners, the coverage of the agitation was either absent or less hostile even when frequent police firings killed 370 people. Now, after forty years, one can see a quantum increase in the size, number, and reach of the print media. Also added are nine 24-hour news channels, giving minute and repeated coverage of each and every immolation, suicide (reportedly 40 deaths), statement, dharna, effigy-burning, and bus-damaging incident ? both in close-up and slow motion. Continuing discussions for hours, live interviews, and phone-in comments across the three regions were being telecast. Each TV channel became a forum for heated exchanges between pro- and anti- Telangana advocates. 


While all political parties were plunged into a crisis of leadership and credibility -- with swiftly shifting stands regarding the carving out the State of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as per the pre-1956 geographic   position-- the media (especially the electronic media) ended up exhibiting merely a competitive outsmarting-the-other spirit at the cost of objectivity. One could say that all TV channels can share the blame for fanning the flames of the agitation with the sole purpose of increasing viewership ratings.  Mr. Piratla Venkateswarlu, Editor, Krishna Patrika (a hundred-year-old small daily from Hyderabad) observed that if all Telugu news channels were closed for ten days, peace would be restored in every nook and corner of the State.


All TV cameras caught both the ?cruel? and ?friendly? presence of the armed police. With state-of-the -art media present at every happening, viewers could get to see the real face of police brutality. Two scenes in Hyderabad? one in which four/five armed, helmet-sporting, guard-handling and stick-holding policemen surrounded unarmed students in Osmania University and harshly beat them up even as they ignored their folded-hand prayers, and another of the self immolation of young Srikanth who later died in hospital -- were heart-rending and sensational. However, the cameras also caught the friendly gestures of the police towards the agitators in the post-fast scenario in the non-Telangana areas.


As the fast-unto-death of K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) ? President, Telangana Rastra Samithi -- reached the tenth day, the electronic media continued to speculate about a favourable announcement being made by the Center regarding the formation of Telangana. In fact, each channel continued to bring KCR ?live? to TV viewers of the entire state in talk shows lasting one hour (or more) for about a month before his fast began. This spread his message, his fiery speeches, his emotional appeals, as well as his answers to questions from ordinary viewers to different parts of the state.  Besides this, TV channels telecast nothing other than news about the preparation being made for KCR?s fast for at least ten days before it actually  began (in last week of November). The impact of repetitive media telecasts by all Telugu channels of statements and counter statements by TRS leaders was so much that the pre-emptive arrest of KCR sparked off simultaneous agitations all over the ten districts of Telangana.


Sensational  health bulletins


TV Channels were also guilty of sensationalizing health bulletins about KCR from Hyderabad?s NIMS Hospital by telecasting contradictory reports. While KCR?s relatives and followers demanded positive assurances from the Center to save his life, the media?s ?scrolling? report of KCR going into coma ended up spurring violence which damaged many commercial properties in the city. The Director and other Doctors of NIMS were rushed into convening media conferences to tell the people that KCR had not slipped into coma -- although they did say that he had begun suffering from a steady reduction of potassium and other required chemical ingredients because of his not eating solid food. On 8th and 9th December, Medical Officials of NIMS announced that it would be impossible to save KCR without food intakes.  


When the Congress High Command from Delhi commanded Chief Minister Rosaiah to ascertain the views of all party representatives and the Congress Legislature Party by convening meetings, the media was airing different stories about Telangana -- each based on the likes and dislikes of the owners or anchors of the respective TV Channels.  Almost all opposition parties told Rosaiah (and then the dozens of visual media mikes) that they would support the resolution for Telangana if the Congress moved it. They blamed the ruling party for not specifying its stand, for going back on its promise of carving out Telangana, and of cheating the people of Telangana. As usual, the members of CLP passed a single-line resolution authorizing Sonia Gandhi with full discretion to decide on the Telangana issue. The TV Channels promptly began reporting news of core committee meetings and various confabulations being held in Delhi throughout the night, culminating in visuals of Home Minister Chidambaram declaring the initiation of the formation the new state after midnight.


At that point TV channels immediately began breaking the news of the resignations of around forty members from the Congress, TDP, and Prajarajyam parties. Students and other sections of society picked up the appeals being made via TV cameras, kicked up emotions all around, and made the universities the nerve centers of counter agitations.  Except for three channels -- HMTV, ETV, and Zee TV-- the media became a player in building partisan opinions about Telangana by high lighting the revolt of Congress legislators against the High Command. The en masse resignations of legislators crossed the figure of 130. Pathetically, neither the Congress nor the TDP could prevent its members from acting against their declared stand on the issue. For political novice Chiranjeevi, it was impossible to stop his legislators. While Congress legislators defied their Chief Minister, the PCC President, and the High Command, TDP members deserted Chandrababu Naidu.  



Airing provocation


All TV channels were almost uniform in terms of timing and content as they aired the provocative speeches of the leaders of the three regions, both before and after KCR?s fast. These high-pitched speeches contained abusive language and unprintable hostile expressions -- enough to evoke emotions in viewers. One channel repeatedly telecast the clippings of fiery speeches that the late YS Rajasekhar Reddy made against the TRS, while another showed the aggressive and abusive statements of TRS leaders, which had fuelled the anger against Telangana. All these were totally absent until the news of the en masse resignations of legislators began scrolling (and visuals rolling) on TV screens.


During the coverage of this agitation, every minute was ?history? and every event a ?historic turning point? for the visual media. They were such a hurry to record this ?history? that they have absolutely no time to verify anything. Constitutionally, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly cannot accept a resignation until the legislator explains to him personally about the genuineness of his need to resign. However, the media did not say word about the fact that no legislator (either of the TDP or of the Congress) insisted on his resignation being accepted after he had personally approached the Speaker. As per a proviso (please note, that it is not provision; proviso means exception) in Article 190, the Speaker shall not accept any resignation without ascertaining, through inquiry, that such resignation was voluntary and genuine. It is matter of public knowledge that resignations were submitted as part of strategy, in prescribed or faxed forms, with signatures on dotted lines that could never be considered as genuine or voluntary, or even as being sincerely submitted for vacating a seat in the Assembly.  No media entity was inclined to verify the claims that ?people in the constituency? had forced them to resign, or that they were reflecting the voice of the ?people.? In fact, the sequence of events obviously shows that the resignations preceded the agitation.  


Media entities see a crisis even when there is none. At one stage, viewers were bombarded with the ?news? of a ?constitutional crisis? with big headlines, based on a region-wise division of the legislators and the ministers threatening to resign from the Rosaih?s cabinet. These reporters did not know that, in changed circumstances, the Centre could not ?use? Article 356 of the Constitution to settle the internal squabbles of their own ruling party as in Andhra Pradesh.


Tailpiece: a source of revenue


Another facet of the media?s role in this crisis was that agitation has also become a direct source of revenue. One of the richest Congress MPs, Lagadapati Rajagopal, gave a three-minute song-based advertisement against bifurcation of state to almost all Telugu TV Channels -- there are around nine channels in Andhra Pradesh -- to be telecast fifteen times a day for seven days, at the cost of Rs. 8 lakhs per channel. TV cameras would focus on every angle of the activities he participated in; and, when arrested, the event would be repeated many times and -- and sometimes even in slow motion, with graphics and rhythmic music giving rise to the ?hero effect?. Interestingly, more than one channel has claimed that these scenes of arrest were ?exclusive? to them.

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