A new state doesn’t necessarily translate into a new attitude towards media criticism of the state.
The newest state of the country reiterated an old governmental tenet last week: criticism is not allowed and poking fun is an even stricter no-no.
The K Chandrasekhar Rao-led Telangana government has blocked two Telugu news channels – TV 9 and ABN Andhra Jyothi – within weeks of assuming office. According to a report in India Today, TV 9 was banned as it had aired a satirical show that was “derogatory, highly objectionable and in bad taste”.
According to sources, ABN Andhra Jyothi was banned because of a particular news report that appeared on the group’s newspaper by the same name. The news report supposedly portrayed the new Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) government in a bad light.
Insiders in the TV industry of the region, however, told Newslaundry that the news report was only a trigger. “Andhra Jyothi has always been a pro-unified Andhra voice and it was only a matter of time that Rao took such a step”, said a local journalist. He also said that personal friction between Rao and ABN’s Managing Editor, Radhakrishna, was responsible for Rao taking such a step.
The TRS-owned daily Namaste Telangana competes directly with Andhra Jyothi in most markets in Telangana.
Incidentally, there have been very few news reports on the issue. The Hoot, though, has carried two stories on the episode – both highly editorialised pieces. In one of these stories, “When media threatens democracy”, the author Padmaja Shaw puts up a spirited defence of the ban (and the TRS in general) and accuses the media of trying to “prove that the idea of Telangana itself is unviable”. She argues: In this vitiated media atmosphere, the successful formation of Telangana state is a tribute to the political awareness of the Telangana people and the strong civil society that operates outside the media.
She does concede (in the last paragraph) that “blacking out of the channels is perhaps a serious threat to free speech”. Yet, she ends her piece by asking if we should “also question the stamping out of alternative opinions by those with clout in the so called marketplace of ideas”.
The other piece titled “Abusive media vs angry legislature” written by Madabhushi Sridhar points out instances of coverage by ABN which qualify as “contempt”. He also comments that “now for the first time, the anti-Telangana media has been put on the defensive”.
No attempt at neutrality there. Which is perhaps understandable because the issue is sensitive and in light of the polarisation that Telangana’s formation has created, an insider’s account is bound to be opinionated.
Newslaundry spoke to representatives of both TV9 and ABN Andhra Jyothi for their versions.
A senior editorial staff with TV9 told Newslaundry that they have apologised for the offensive show and that it was a case of editorial oversight. “We’ve tendered an unconditional apology to the MLAs and the speaker of the house. What else are we supposed to do?”, he asked.
Sources told Newslaundry that the show had led to a motion being moved against the channel in the Assembly. However, the Speaker has kept the issue on hold for the time being. In the meantime though, the government approached the Cable MSO in the state to block the channels –a request that they adhered to immediately.
Authorities at ABN Andhra Jyothi are more defiant. “We had got a scoop about the new government’s plan to tax sand lorries coming in from Andhra Pradesh to Telangana. The report was carried only in our group’s newspaper and not the channel. Since it’s difficult to ban a newspaper, they got the cable MSO to block the news channel”, said a source inside ABN Andhra Jyothi, who was not willing to be named.
Expectedly, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh has come out against the ban saying “that it will not allow restrictions on media”. Incidentally, the TDP had blacklisted three media organisations owned by the TRS and YRS Congress in 2011 for allegedly spreading disinformation against the TDP.
Voices of dissent, it seems, don’t go down well with anyone sarkaari. Freedom of speech, free media and democracy? Well, they are for the textbooks.