Naidu at war with TV news channels

TV channels are caught in the crossfire when Andhra Pradesh and Telangana fight. But they also make the fur fly because their owners are politicians.
SURESH KUMAR ALAPATI reports. Pix: Naidu and KC Rao: locked in acrimony.
Naidu at war with TV news channels

As the latest political scandal further poisons the already acrimonious relationship between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the TV news channels of both Telugu states are becoming the  news themselves because of the way they cover these developments and because they themselves are owned by politicians.

In the eye of the storm are T News and Sakshi, owned by the families of K. Chandrasekhar Rao, Chief Minister of Telangana and Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy, leader of the opposition YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh.

What we have seen in recent weeks is notices being served to channels, protests by journalists’ unions and channels being yanked off the air – all over the Cash for Vote scandal over an audio tape in which Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu allegedly tries to bribe nominated MLA Elvis Stephenson to support his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in the Telangana Legislative Council election.

On June 8, when the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) establishment was observing "Maha Sankalp Dinam" (day of great resolve) by organising a huge rally near the proposed new capital city Amravati, NTV went off air for the first time in Andhra Pradesh. Beaming of the signal was restored the next day. But a few days later, following endless new stories about the audio tape, the channel was taken off the air again by a majority of MSOs in the state, allegedly at the behest of the ruling TDP.

NTV remains off the air for about 70 per cent of cable TV viewers in Andhra Pradesh. When questioned, MSOs cite various reasons because obviously they cannot give the real reason, particularly when they have seen the experience of MSOs in Telangana, who took both TV9 and ABN Andhra Jyothi off the air last June.

This is not the first time that NTV has been at the receiving end of TDP anger. The TDP says the channel is controlled by Jaganmohan Reddy. While it has been protesting regularly against the "one-sided" coverage by Sakshi channel, the TDP has recently become more sensitive to NTV’s coverage as it thinks it has a wider reach and more credibility.  

Both Sakshi and NTV were very critical of the land pooling operations for the proposed new capital but it was the Guntur staffer of NTV who was attacked by TDP activists one day when he was going live from a village under land pooling.

This markedly more hostile TDP attitude might have something to do with reports on the grapevine that a real estate baron from Telangana, who is very close to the Chief Minister Chandrasekhar Rao, has bought a controlling stake in NTV.

The TDP leadership, however, was careful not to give vent to its ire publicly. The NTV management itself has yet to blame anybody for the ban. When questioned, NTV Chairman Narendra Choudhary played down the whole issue. Contacted by the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, the NTV editorial leadership said they could not comment without clearance by the management. This left the union undecided about how to react.

When Revanth Reddy, Deputy Leader of the TDP in Telangana, was caught on camera allegedly trying to buy the vote of Stevenson on June 1, the visuals reached T News and Sakshi quickly and were broadcast. This prompted the TDP leadership to question the authenticity of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) operation and ask how the footage, if from a genuine ACB operation, had reached the TV newsrooms. A. K. Khan, ACB Director General, immediately announced that the bureau had not given any footage to any channel.

The Cash for Vote scandal has triggered intense political activity and trading of charges by both sides. The TDP claimed phones had been tapped. Complaints have been filed in police stations across Andhra Pradesh against Telangana Chief Minister Rao over the alleged phone tapping. All these cases have been referred to a Special Investigative Team.  

Then came the audio tape of Naidu allegedly talking to Stevenson. T News again was the first to air this tape and all the other Telugu channels followed suit. But it was the vigorous coverage by Sakshi and NTV which left Naidu and his supporters fuming. Amid intense speculation as to how the Telangana ACB would proceed in linking the audio tape to the Cash for Vote scam, T News, Sakshi and NTV ran breaking news for a full day on June 16, saying Naidu would be summoned any moment for questioning.

Some other news channels also picked up the story but dropped it once it became evident it had no substance.

Not prepared to let the airing of such a story pass, an Andhra Pradesh police officer visited the T News office in Hyderabad on June 19 and served a notice under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act asking why action should not be taken against it for running false and malicious news. Sakshi got a notice too though, curiously, NTV was spared.

This action by the TDP government of Andhra Pradesh enraged all the journalists' bodies in Telangana. They held rallies and protested. When Telangana’s ruling politicians joined in, criticizing the actions of the TDP in Andhra Pradesh as an attack against press freedom, both the TDP and the Congress in Andhra Pradesh pooh-poohed the criticism and reminded everyone of the Telangana government’s earlier ban on TV9 and ABN.

Of the 20 odd Telugu satellite news channels available in Andhra Pradesh before the state of Telangana was created, only two channels, TV9 and ETV, came up with separate channels for Telangana after the bifurcation. All the other channels are beaming the same signal to both the states.

At present, they are content with separate news bulletins for the two states. But the newsrooms feel the heat whenever there is a row between the two states and their political establishments. Accusations of bias are inevitable over the channels that are owned by political families. They are accused of being selective and slanted in their coverage by the other side. When things get heated, the supporters of the rival parties take out their anger against field reporters belonging to the ‘enemy’ side.  

In the undivided state of Andhra Pradesh, Naidu had barred Sakshi reporters from his press conferences. Even after becoming Chief Minister of a divided Andhra Pradesh, the ban continued. Only when the Indian Journalists Union and the APUWJ complained to the Press Council of India did Naidu relent - and even then, only partially. His defence is that, as Chief Minister, he cannot ban any reporter from any channel attending a press conference but his residence can be off limits to some. Sakshi reporters are still not allowed into his official residence.

The political tensions that mark the relationship between the two states have spilled over into the news coverage by the television channels which make no secret of their political preferences. Add to this the race for viewers and you have a volatile mix and plenty of sensational reporting, such as the totally speculative story that Naidu was going to be summoned for questioning by the ACB.   

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the public in both states is becoming increasingly sceptical about the veracity and authenticity of television news. One result of this is that people are increasingly unlikely to get upset if politicians interfere with freedom of expression and this is a cause for concern for journalists.  


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