Dirty tricks in the Telugu states

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Regional Media | 25/06/2015
Chandrababu Naidu is fighting political embarrassment by muzzling the media in two ways: invoking the 'public interest' and misusing the Cable Act.
Dirty tricks in the Telugu states

The divorce has been granted but the battle for custody is continuing. After the formation of Telangana, if anyone expected relative calm in the highly politicised, caste-driven, Telugu news media, they have been disappointed. A fresh round of skirmishes has broken out among the media houses.

The trouble has its roots in the persistent and relentless denial of separate statehood for Telangana by parties like the Telugu Desam (TDP), which continue to harbour ambitions of reclaiming Telangana even after its formation. The TDP chief, Chandrababu Naidu, loses no opportunity to proclaim his political ambitions in Telangana and this serves to keep the embers of separatist sentiment burning.[i] The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) which rules in Telangana has found this attitude of the TDP justification enough to decimate that party in the state.

The election process for Members of the Legislative Council of Telangana was scheduled for 1 June, 2015 in this fraught political environment compounded by the hectic realignments that began once the winners and losers in the 2014 election became apparent.

In a desperate attempt to stem the migration of its legislators to the TRS in Telangana, the TDP allegedly sent its senior Telangana leader Revanth Reddy to negotiate with an independent nominated legislator, Elvis Stephenson, to vote in favour of the TDP candidate in exchange for 5 crore rupees and other incentives.

This entire negotiation process, that included cash transactions, was filmed, reports say, with the help of the Telangana Anti-Corruption Bureau with whom the legislator had already lodged a complaint and set up the trap[ii]. This news was broken on the TNews channel owned by TRS chief Chandrasekhar Rao, followed by Sakshi TV owned by Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress Party.

A week later, audio tapes purportedly of Naidu reassuring Stephenson of all the money and favours promised by his emissaries surfaced in the media[iii].

Naidu, instead of denying any part of the events, has been harping on the illegality of phone-tapping and lack of freedom for the Andhra Government to function in Hyderabad which is a joint capital for ten years. Naidu and his spokespersons were repeatedly seen attempting to convert the case into a law and order issue between the Andhra and Telangana people on TV channels, even as the ground reality suggested that there was no threat to any Andhra residents in Telangana.

The TDP repeatedly tried to suggest that Andhra residents were somehow under threat because there was a sting against his own political party. He also began a debate to invoke Section 8 of the states reorganization bill that defines the powers of the Governor on law and order in the joint capital.

As the TDP scrambled at damage control, two other battlefronts opened up. The NTV channel was stopped by some of the cable operators in Andhra Pradesh as it was showingthe sting and its aftermath extensively.

Naidu provided a threat to media freedom by sending notices by the “authorised officer”, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Visakhapatnam, to both TNews and Sakshi TV, at their Hyderabad offices. The officer’s notice invoked Section 19 of the Cable Regulation Act (which empowers the Authorised Officer to prohibit programmes in the public interest if any of the programmes are not in conformity with the programming code in Section 5 and Advertising Code under Section 6 of the Cable Regulation Act and gave three days for the channels to respond.

The notice says that the transmission and retransmission of the sting and Naidu’s purported phone call to the legislator has “developed feelings of enimity (sic), hatred and ill-will between different parties and also people of both the states.”

The notice further states “The said footage was repeatedly shown in your channel and I felt that it offended basic principles of decency, maligning an elected Head of Government of AP …. You are aware that the unedited versions of such slanderous material will have deleterious impact on the public and impressionable minds and further such programmes will not only increase the vulnerability of society to differences among the Telugu speaking people in both the states but also directly hurt the feeling and sentiments of the Telugu linguistic community.”

Naidu is probably the first politician in the country to attempt a direct assault on free speech by using public interest/sentiment as an argument to black out stories of political corruption!

Two issues are worthy of note here from the manner in which the notice is phrased. The rules for implementation of the Act that specify the authorised officer also set forth a suggested procedure for taking action against channels. Monitoring committees at both district and state level need to be constituted first. Due process for receiving complaints needs to be followed before any show cause notice is issued.

It is not clear from the authorised officer’s notice if such procedures have been followed. He says that “I felt that it offended the principles of decency …” No law can vest arbitrary powers in an authorised government functionary to take action based on how “he felt”, without due process.

Many states have not constituted monitoring committees even after repeated reminders from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.  Instead now, the Andhra Pradesh government is seeking to use a designated police official to threaten some channels. This is nothing but an attempt at censorship, and an attempt to black out news that shows political corruption.

Exposing the misdeeds of the political class is the very raison d’etre of the media  in a democracy. Can the Cable Act be misused by an elected government by just instructing an ‘authorised officer’ to go after some channels that transmit programmes it finds unpalatable? Is getting elected a licence to indulge in illegal activities? Does the Cable Act also specify that channels may not transmit corruption stories about elected political leaders because they cause public disturbance?

This issue will inevitably make some rake up the boycotting of TV9 and the ABN Andhra Jyothi channels by cable operators in Telangana. The blacking out of channels has been happening not just in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana but elsewhere in the country wherever the distribution companies are owned by politicians.

The blackouts have been prompted either for political reasons or because of carriage fee controversies. It may also be noted that when the cable operators in Telangana boycotted some channels, they argued that the channels were insulting the Telangana people and subjecting them to ridicule.

Nothing justifies the blacking out of channels but when it happens as a non-state intervention, it seems there are no legal remedies as of now, except the laws that govern negotiations between channels and the distributors. The NTV blackout could not become a free speech issue as the channel decided to ride it out with the MSOs, instead of seeking help from the unions of journalists.

In this case, the attempt is to prevent an instance of alleged political corruption from being made public. Before 2009, when there was no challenge to the dominant media in the Telugu market, damage control was easier. Naidu had the media eating out of his hands most of the time.  

In his attempts to save his political future this time, he is setting a dangerous precedent of censorship through the police by invoking the Cable Act. Other politicians in the country can play the same trick to cover up their misdemeanours by invoking ‘public sentiment’.

Every time a politician emerges out of jail, there is no dearth of supporters to provide a hero’s welcome. Should that decide what the media may or may not show? The misuse of the Cable Act in this way must be resisted.

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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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