Respect Telangana, or go off the air

BY JAGDEESWARA RAO| IN Regional Media | 18/06/2014
Early days yet, but already two Seemandhra TV channels have been blockaded for hurting the sentiments of Telangana's legislators and, apparently, its cable operators.
JAGADEESWARA RAO reports that freedom of press is also at stake.

A clash of sentiments between Telangana cable operators and legislators, including the chief minister, on one side, and two Seemandhra owned TV channels on the other has led to the blockade of two channels, TV9 and ABN (Aamoda Broadcasting Network) in all the districts of the new state. As of Wednesday afternoon, the channels were still blocked. 

Last week, TV9 allegedly made offensive observations about the newly elected Telangana legislators in a programme it telecast. It said that when the assembly session began, the members were given a rule book, a copy of the Constitution of India and an iPad. And commented that since the new members were unable to read from written documents at the swearing-in ceremony, what would they do with the iPad. It also allegedly used terms like “rotten arrack faces” for the new legislators (arrack is a reference to the country liquor consumed here). 

The new chief minister, K Chandrasekhar Rao, reacted immediately and sharply. Speaking in the Assembly on June 13, he said the programme had crossed the limit of decency and was “very offensive”. He also took objection to an article in the Telugu daily newspaper Andhra Jyothy, whose proprietor and publisher V. Radhakrishna owns ABN. 

The following day, the Telangana Legislative Assembly and Council passed unanimous resolutions advocating strong action against TV9 for beaming a programme that had, according to them, belittled the honour and the supremacy of the houses. The presiding officers of the two houses were authorised to take strong action against the channel.  

No formal ban order was issued by the government against either channel. Yet, Telangana multi-system operators (MSOs) began to block transmission of the channels from June 15. Meeting on Monday (June 16) under the umbrella of Telangana MSO Association, they decided on a state-wide blockade of the TV9 and ABN channels in Telangana for allegedly attacking the Telugu language and dialect and for insulting the Telangana Assembly and its legislators, besides broadcasting what was termed malicious propaganda against the new government. The president of Telangana MSOs, Subhash Reddy, noted that TV9 and ABN had “not changed their attitude of insulting Telangana, even after the formation of a separate state”. 

Ominously, the chief minister also threatened that the state might take over cable distribution in the state. "We will take appropriate action. If required, we will bring legislation on the lines of that brought by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalalitha and take over the cable TV", he is reported to have said. (In 2011, Jayalalalitha nationalised the multi-crore cable television business in her state, reviving the state-run Arasu Cable TV Corporation to manage the industry, and ending the near monopoly over these services by the Maran family.) 

TV9 tried to make amends with an unconditional apology, which it repeatedly scrolled during its broadcasts. However, on June 18, the blockade was still in force (though there were reports it would be lifted shortly) and cable subscribers in Telangana, including its capital city, Hyderabad, could not see the two channels. 

It is rapidly becoming a media freedom issue, with legislators from both the BJP and the congress criticising the action of the Telangana MSOs. 

Interestingly, some prominent media voices condemned the TV9 programme and came out in support of the government. "The anger and pain of Chief Minister, Chandrasekhar Rao is understandable. His feelings were justified and I fully support him,” said Mr. Srinivasa Reddy of the Indian Journalists Union, while participating in a programme “Fetters to Freedom” (Swetchaku Sankellu) organised by ABN.   

He criticised the language used in the TV9 programme and also advocated strong action against MSOs, who he said acted as a monopoly. Mr. Reddy too wanted legislation in Telangana on the lines of Tamil Nadu. 

But Mr. Reddy refused to comment on the issue of ABN and Andhra Jyothy, saying that he had not read the article concerned. However, Mr. Radhakrishna was not so reticent. In a front page article on June 17, he strongly attacked the style of functioning of the new chief minister of Telangana, and challenged him to take legal action against anything that had appeared in Andhra Jyothy or had been broadcast on ABN. His daily and channel stood by the people and not the powers that be, he declared. Mr Radhakrishna alleged that Mr Rao had a grouse against Andhra Jyothy for following an independent line in its political coverage, and had been waiting for an opportunity to fix the paper’s management. He had now found himself an alibi, said the Andhra Jyothy and ABN proprietor, but declared that he would not be cowed. 

According to Mr Radhakrishna’s article, the MSOs themselves had nothing to do with the blockade.  He said it was on the orders of the Chief Minister that the blockade was being implemented. How many MSOs would have the guts to go against a Chief Minister, he asked. However, he said he himself was prepared to face the challenge thrown by Mr Rao. I am ready for the 'do or die battle' (vijayamo veera swargamo), he declared.  

However, senior journalists in Hyderabad note that in wishing to take the new state government head-on, Mr Radhakrishna seems to be in a minority. While there were some protests by journalists on Tuesday against the ban, the stringent action against the channels has not evoked the kind of outcry that it should have done, and would have done, in the past. Curiously, some newspapers chose not to report the blockade at all. This is partly because the TV9 programme was hard to defend. However, some journalists do feel that the new government has successfully managed to intimidate the media early into its tenure. “After all, we have to survive in Hyderabad which is the capital of Telangana,” was the way one senior journalist put it. 

The silver lining is that with DTH entering the market in a big way, the monopoly of the MSOs is not as effective as it used to be.TV viewers have an alternative. That being said, this will be a state government to watch closely for its interactions with the media.

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