When media threatens democracy

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 20/06/2014
Dominant media in Andhra Pradesh, with close links to the Telugu Desam Party, has for years showed contempt for all things Telangana.
Any analysis of the actions of the new Telangana government against the media must first confront this reality, says PADMAJA SHAW. PIX: Chandrababu Naidu

The battle unfolding in the Telugu-speaking world, in which some Hyderabad-based channels are baiting the leaders and people of Telangana, is a long-running one. There are over 17 news channels in the Telugu market. Some 14 of them are backed by coastal Andhra/ Rayalaseema money, which comes with distinct caste affiliations, and openly ally themselves with parties opposed to the formation of Telangana. Many of these channels have been waging a no-holds-barred political battle against the Telangana movement since December 2009. 

Channels like ETV, ABN-Andhrajyothi, TV9 and NTV have supported the voices demanding a united Andhra Pradesh. They have often used aggressive tactics like cherry-picking statements of Telangana leaders to create panic among employees from coastal Andhra who have settled in Hyderabad, making them insecure about their future in the city that will one day be Telangana’s capital. The influence of ETV and ABN Andhrajyothi is enhanced by their presence in the print media. 

After the Union and state elections last month, the channels also played up statements by the new Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and head of  the Telugu Desam Party, Chandrababu Naidu, declaring that he would rule Telangana (where a Telangana Rashtra Samithi government is now in power) by 2019. And then, the ease with the central government’s ordinance on Polavaram (opposed by Telangana) was secured overnight, thanks to Chandrababu Naidu’s clout in Delhi, further deepened divisions. 

Nor should it be forgotten that the High Court of Andhra Pradesh had to restrain the channels from providing live coverage to the Telangana movement after December 2009, since their coverage was raising tensions. Live telecasts from the Osmania University campus were also disallowed, for the same reason. 

Even after Telangana came into being, channels like ETV, TV9, ABN-Andhrajyothi, NTV (to name just the channels with high TRPs) continued with their partisan coverage of events like the swearing-in ceremonies of the two chief ministers. There was euphoric coverage of Chandrababu Naidu’s victory and grand swearing-in ceremony (which cost an estimated Rs 30 crores, lavish for a newly formed deficit state). The austere swearing-in ceremony of the Telangana chief minister was not only played down but ridiculed viciously through comedy shows. Below is a sample of the poor taste shown by TV9, which lead to the decision of the multi-system operators in Telangana to stop showing it. TV9 has removed its offending show, which was condemned by the chief minister of the new state from the floor of the Assembly, from its website but it is still available on other sites, such as missiontelangana.com.

While excerpts have appeared in the Hoot and other places, these longer ones, below, show just how derogatory the coverage was.

 “It must be like bringing people who see old movies in touring talkies to a multiplex to see a Hollywood film. They couldn’t make out whether to cry or laugh or even to fear their first visit to the assembly and were looking around in awe. Not just their behaviour, when they came in to take the oath, it was a comedy it seems. Let’s see how the first day’s game went.”

 “The story of our Telangana MLAs was like the fellow who is used to consuming stale toddy being served bar liquor (sic). They have been catapulted to the assembly through the short cut of our votes, and their performance at the swearing in was sensational and scared the daylights out of the public. They’ve washed their faces before coming in but when the time came for swearing in, they could not read from the written text on the page, many stumbled on the text. Not just that, these who couldn’t read from a paper were given laptops. If a guy in loincloth is given a laptop, he would fold it and stick it wherever! Only they know what they will do, where they will sell it, but much like the drunkard finding a coin on the street, they have stuck the laptops under their armpits and walked away.”

Such offensive “creativity” targeting people from Telangana, with an underlying sub-text of caste/class and racial prejudice, is not uncommon in Telugu films and television. The script was rendered even more shocking because it was delivered in Telangana dialect to further ridicule the state’s elected leaders! TV9 is a repeat offender, having done several offensive stories, one of which was a sting on homosexuals.

ABN-Andhrajyothi ran an old controversial interview of Telangana’s chief minister, K Chandrasekhar Rao, done by its Managing Editor, Radhakrishna, on the day of KCR’s swearing-in. The hour-long interview is an extreme example of media arrogance, with the journalist addressing KCR disrespectfully with the term “nuvvu” (tum in Hindi) throughout, while KCR addressing him as “meeru” (aap in Hindi) and giving reasoned answers. The entire interview was in poor taste, and to repeat it when KCR was poised to be sworn in as CM was mischievous, to put it mildly, even if the apparent reason was that KCR was not giving interviews at this time. The media grapevine says that Radhakrishna and KCR are friends, but to telecast such an interview to coincide with the swearing in ceremony was uncalled for.

Most of the Telugu channels are based in the city of Hyderabad; their owners have dug deep roots in the region by way of business and extensive real estate interests. The channels and newspapers have been used as weapons for protecting these interests and to promote political allies. One of the primary causes for the movement for a separate state of Telangana was this utter contempt media owners unhesitatingly showed towards all things Telangana.

Over the years, the Telugu Desam Party has developed a nexus with several media houses. Some media houses are direct supporters, others are owned by relatives, so much so there is a network of employees who have spread rhizomatically across channels, inhibiting a diversity of perspectives.

Every Congress government that came to power since the emergence of Telugu Desam Party in the early 1980s had to face a feral media from the very first week of government formation. From its reactions to the government of Nedurumalli Janardhan Reddy, which was brought down by a furious media campaign, to its  attacks against YS Rajasekhar Reddy’s government, which was embattled enough to start its own media empire, the partisan role of Telugu media is well documented.

The record of Chandrababu Naidu in privatising technical education on an unprecedented scale and his undermining of liberal arts education are rarely, if ever, mentioned by the media. Significantly, two major ‘education entrepreneurs’ have become a Telugu Desam MLA and MP, respectively. The MLA, who is now a minister in the Andhra Pradesh cabinet, is Dr Narayana of the massive network of Narayana group of schools and technical education institutes, and the MP is C Malla Reddy, who runs a network of medical, dental and engineering colleges.

Many of the ‘stars’ who have lit the path of Chandrababu Naidu’s rise to political eminence as an “efficient CEO” have proven to be suspect. Ramalinga Raju of Satyam and former McKinsey head Rajat Gupta (and several others associated with the Indian School of Business, who were once touted as role models by Chandrababu Naidu) have bitten the dust. The big Telugu media houses, for their part, have provided euphoric coverage to the big corporate-heads-turned-politicians, and their high priest Chandrababu Naidu, while deriding their challengers.

While the TDP manifesto is once again invoking Singapore as a model of development for Andhra Pradesh, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government has declared its intention to bolster state-run educational institutions and to improve the Arogyasri programme to strengthen the state-run health sector. TRS is an untested entity and deserves a fair chance to perform for the people of Telangana. If it fails, the people of Telangana will have the freedom to find alternatives.

However, the media in this region, including the journalists reporting for national media houses, have imbibed the sense of entitlement that a section of the political class projects at the cost of the welfare of the people. Even as media houses ridicule Telangana’s elected representatives, they have found no time to debate or compare the policies of the two states and how these are likely to benefit the people.

In this environment of complete unconcern for balance and fairness, what meaning does the right to free speech have? What remedies do the victims of vindictive coverage have? Censorship by the state is no longer the real threat in a big capital driven media environment. It is the threat of censorship of alternative views and paths to progress by media houses that are the mouth-pieces of big capital that is the real challenge to democracy. The absence of any viable regulatory framework for television and, to a large extent print journalism; the absence of proper avenues for redress or equal access to media spaces, leaves few options for the aggrieved. The Telangana viewpoint was almost absent in the media sphere with some small attempts made only in 2012 with the start of TNews and V6 channels. Till then, the media space was saturated with the media driven by Seemandhra capital of a particular social category. This in itself is a form of censorship.

In this vitiated media atmosphere, the successful formation of Telangana state is a tribute to the political awareness of the Telangana people and the strong civil society that operates outside the media. The newly formed Telangana government is being targeted by the media, if only to prove that the idea of Telangana itself is unviable. One of the first statements of Chandrababu Naidu after his victory in recent elections in AP was to declare that he will reunite the Telugu people (whatever that implies). And with the TDP also declaring its agenda of coming to power in Telangana in 2019, its arsenal of channels is already out there with blazing guns.

The blacking out of the channels is perhaps a serious threat to free speech but while we protest its muzzling, shouldn't we also question the stamping out of alternative opinions by those with clout in the so called marketplace of ideas?

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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.                   

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