Rushing to Ramoji’s defence

Even at this juncture the media did not think it appropriate to persuade the business group to come out with facts or issue a denial.

 T Siva Rama Krishna Sastry

 The Andhra Pradesh    government¿s proposal  to replace mechanical meters in auto rickshaws with digital meters to prevent meter tampering saw auto-rickshaws going off the roads for a week in Hyderabad last month.  Auto drivers resort to similar tactics against what they call harassment when the police try to enforce traffic discipline and apprehend errant auto drivers.

Introducing digital meters and enforcing discipline are welcome moves. But auto drivers feel otherwise as they are conditioned to think that any measure taken by the government without their consent works against them and the only way to protect their rights and interests is to agitate. To agitate is their inalienable right. The success of such an agitation largely depends upon unity and solidarity of the flock.

The question now is whether the media that is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the nation can suppose that the press is under attack without having evidence to confirm it and adopt a similar strategy to counter it?  But this is what is exactly happening in the wake of the Margadarsi controversy.

When the controversy first arose following the observations made by a congress MP from AP, neither the integrity, and honesty of Ramoji Rao nor the financial credibility of Margadarsi financiers headed by Ramoji Rao-HUF was the subject matter. The only question was the propriety of the Ramoji Rao-HUF collecting deposits from individuals without proper approval from the RBI. The AP government seeing a prima facie justifiably appointed a committee which came out with the conclusion that "Ramoji firm can pay only 49 paise of a Re" which caused panic amongst depositors. Even at this juncture the media did not think it appropriate to persuade the business group to come out with facts or issue a denial. On the other hand, it described the action of the government as an attempt to muzzle the press.

 The Editors Guild of India has strongly condemned the "planned moves" to raid and search the offices of the Eenadu newspaper and its Editor Ramoji Rao as a "blatant attempt to muzzle the media". In a statement signed by the president Alok Mehta and secretary general K.S. Sachidananda Murthy, the Guid said " any move by the police to search the offices of the newspaper and its Editor amounts to a direct attack on the freedom of press" reported The Hindu in its issue dated February 21, 2007.

Kalampai Kattulu ("daggers over pen" literally and "attack against press" figuratively); Kalaalaku Sankellu ("fetters to pens" literally and "gagging the press" figuratively) were the headlines of two Telugu newspapers of February 23, 2007. 

This is like the much debated question of the so called Islamic veil, when the French government position has been wrongly constructed as an exclusive attack on Muslim freedom of religion.

 It is strange that the media which has no qualms over reporting "fake encounters and other excesses conducted by the police and the military especially in J&K" without any concern for the effect such reporting might have on the morale of the security forces, doesn¿t feel obliged to express solidarity with the government even at times of external threats and reserves itself the right to censure and condemn anything it doesn¿t relish, should feel sick at the government¿s decision to find out the truth behind the allegations against Margadarsi. Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note the observations made by the apex court.

Justice Ravindran of the Supreme Court dealing with a special leave petition filed by media baron Ramoji Rao and his company Ushodaya Enterprises told the counsel for the petitioner, "When the Chief Minister commits a mistake you pointed it out. Similarly, when you did wrong, the State government has acted. Your client (Mr Ramoji Rao) is wearing two hats. One is as a newspaper owner and the other as a proprietor of a chit fund company". The court did not pass any order on the intervenor applications filed by senior journalists N. Ram and Kuldip Nayar seeking impleadment in the special leave petition filed by the company. The Chief Justice did not agree with the intervenors¿ plea and said, "It has nothing to do with the freedom of press. It¿s only a financial business." The court asked counsel for Mr Ram and Mr Raju Ramachandran to approach the AP High Court as it is nearer to it than New Delhi.

Even if the action of the AP government were an act of vendetta against the Telugu Daily Eenadu, the media should have preferred a more professional means consistent with media ethics to bail out its colleague from troubled waters rather than adopt a pedestrian approach to rush to his defence by creating pretexts. May be this is a typical case of media akrasia.

Although late, The Hindu dated February 27, 2007 published the response to Rangachari report by Ramoji Rao-HUF. The response which apparently presents a rosy picture of the financial status of the group of firms, might bring some solace to the customers.

At a time when media seems to have abandoned the impartial style in their news presentation and instead cater to ideology or reflect government policy, indiscretions such as these are bound to erode its credibility. This is certainly a matter of deep concern.

The moral of the story is that drawing preferred conclusions is the norm but telling truth is something else.

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