Bury the media?

BY Madabhushi Sridhar| IN Regional Media | 12/09/2014
The divisive climate in the newly created states is leading to a worrying new news dynamic which is never discussed.
MADABHUSHI SRIDHAR goes beyond the Telangana CM’s ire to examine some issues. PIX: ABN Andhra Jyothi compares KCR to Hitler

French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, historian and philosopher famous for his wit, advocacy of freedom of religion and expression, and separation of church and state, said: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. But what is happening in the new state of Telangana to the ability to tolerate a hostile media?

K Chandrasekhar Rao has been caught in a controversy for the first time as the CM for his harsh comments against the media saying it would be buried eight kilometres below and their necks will be broken if they do not stop insulting the legislators of Telangana. Even the information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar has been moved to respond to that statement. Though he used the word media, he was specifically referring to abusive expressions against Telangana legislators on TV9 after their swearing-in in June 2014.

It is physically not possible and constitutionally not tenable to bury or break the media. As far as Cable TV Network Regulation Act is concerned, a cable operator can be restrained from telecasting a program or stop a channel for a day but prohibiting a TV channel completely is not a legally prescribed consequence. The Telangana Rashtriya Samiti MP and daughter of KCR, Ms Kavitha agreed that the CM’s words could have been milder, but argued that the content was absolutely correct and reflects the opinion of the people.

The reputation of TV9 as innovative and investigative channel under the leadership of Raviprakash, a professional journalist, suffered severely with two nasty programs that led to Cable Operators (MSOs) to block this and another channel ABN Andhra Jyothi. Mr. Vemuri Radhakrishna, the MD of ABN channel had challenged critics to point out which of his programmes were objectionable. Meanwhile in an NDTV debate on September 10, Ms Kavita, said that every decision of the CM was distorted by ABN because of its agenda.

If the Telangana edition criticises, its Andhra counterpart of Andhra Jyothi writes a totally abusive report, she added. Radhakrishna answered that he had to sell the newspaper in two states. The two version trend set by Andhra Jyothi is now being followed by almost all newspapers. One local newspaper, The Hans India daily, for instance, published a banner about KCR meeting PM, on September 7 “KCR meets PM with big wishlist” in its Hyderabad edition, whereas in Vijayawada it was “Live in peace with AP: PM tells KCR”. The core news is that the PM reportedly suggested going for a dialogue process”. Telugu newspapers magnify this distortion little more with several speculations and orientations.

Based on the resolution of the  Telangana House, the Speaker is supposed to take appropriate action against the ‘insult’ by TV9 channel, if he is convinced it was contempt of House, by exercising constitutional powers to punish for breach of privilege. The Privilege Committee has to conclude about the breach only after giving the ‘accused’ editor of Tv9 due chance to defend himself.  Due process of law demands all these exercises. There is no such complaint against the Andhra Jyothi channel. This threatening word of KCR against the media has affected the reputation of the Government and its advisors seriously.

The Constitution of India does not permit prior restraints on the media. Even the judiciary did not allow a prolonged ban or prohibition of the voices however unethical, hostile, defamatory or contemptuous they could be. A ban is a serious violation of freedom of speech and expression, even if the expression is commercially designed, politically motivated, biased and also criminal. The ‘freedom’ lies in publication without prior censors, and if publication results in a breach of rights, privileges or contempt then the consequences could be initiated, because, like press freedom, the right to reputation is equally a fundamental right being an integral part of Article 21 (right to life, liberty and privacy) of the Constitution. The Telangana Government claims that it has nothing to do with the blackout of the two channels.

After around 100 days the banned channels planned protests by sitting in front of the CM and ministers during public meetings with black ribbons around their mouths. As expected, the CM was provoked. The channels also asked their women employees to take to the streets, sit in dharnas and court arrest which reulted in physically throwing them into vans, a clip that was repeated with critical comments, bringing media into agitation mode. The BJP which has the political ambition of ruling Telangana, and the Congress which believes that it was entitled to rule because it gave the state, naturally found the opportunity to attack the new government.

Ms Kavitha says that real issue is the prolonged tussle between the media with vested interests, and Telangana. She also pointed out that Telangana had tolerated critical and also hostile media consisting of 18 channels, except TV9 and ABN. The complaint is that TV9 abused and insulted legislators, the ABN was breaking the bridges between Seemandhra and Telangana,. She gave the example of an Andhra Jyothi report that no settler voted for TRS in Hyderabad. The anchor of NDTV doubted it and said none could write like that. But the media house’s managing director justified it saying that was what happened in Hyderabad.

No Telangana media in AP

The fact to be noted is that the Telangana media or its views were never allowed inside the borders of present Andhra Pradesh prior to and after June 2, 2014 (day of Telangana formation). One Telugu Channel, T News and the Telugu newspaper Namasthe Telangaana are never seen in 13 Andhra Pradesh districts. When Namasthe Telangaana launched a campaign called Atmeeya Yatra (Cordial Tour) with a slogan “Vibhajana Vikaasanike” (Division is for development), its ratham (carriage) was not allowed to enter the border as the police arrested the journalists. They convinced them and entered Andhra, but the vehicle was attacked and destroyed. The bundles of special bulletins of newspapers were burnt. None talked about suppression of freedom of speech and expression then. The Cable operators never allowed T-News in Seemandhra. It was interpreted that people never wanted it.

The TRS pointed out that there was no demand from anywhere to remove the blackout on these TV channels, which should be interpreted as the people not wanting them. Another TV channel V6 was started by G Venkataswamy’s family industry which was very popular in ten districts and was initially telecast in Seemandhra also, but as its Telangana credentials were revealed, it was stopped. It is Andhra’s silent prohibition versus the Telangana MSO’s proclaimed ban. Even now in Telangana, at least 18 channels dole out biased news against the interests of Telangana and vehemently oppose bifurcation and the TRS party, but survive without any hitch. MP Vinod said that Telangana has the culture and civilisation of tolerating hostile media. Who will question the intolerance of Telangana media in Andhra, he asked.

One can get easy and huge publicity plus support of 80 per cent media in Hyderabad if one chooses to abuse the TRS party and its government. The content of abuse is directly proportional to publicity. This opportunity made some leaders who used to speak in a dignified manner stoop to use dirty language. During the election period the language was worse. The anti-Telangana tongue-lashing gets a further boost in debates over TV where anchors precipitate it to the level of verbal war and at times to fist fights too. It boils down to the rule of a new news dynamics that verbal expression of  hostility to the media will invite the ire of the society at large, whereas hostility expressed through actions will never be discussed.

Madabhushi Sridhar, Professor & Coordinator, Center for Media Law & Public Policy, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad

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