Here’s a question. You are the chief minister of a state and battling one of the worst disasters, say, unprecedented rains causing devastating floods. You also have a TV news channel at your disposal that some (charitably) call your party mouthpiece. How would you use your channel in this hour of need when your people and your state need maximum support from your government?
You’d perhaps use the channel and its website to spread information about rescue and relief operations, right? Well, if you are J Jayalalithaa, you’d rather gloat about how wonderfully you have managed the whole affair and gloat some more.
This is Jaya TV’s homepage.
The CM is asking country men to donate to India’s tri-forces who are saving the nation when the nation is asking people to donate for Chennai flood victims.
There’s this bit on the floods too.
The paragraph under the image speaks for the people of Chennai – it roughly translates to: “Heartfelt thanks from people to Jayalalithaa for no-fare buses for the third continuous day”.
Jaya TV’s live feed has the anchor talking about what a great job the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government has done so far and how deftly it has managed the flood situation.
While the rest of the media is showing pictures of Chennai submerged, Jaya TV aired these visuals of the city claiming the water had receded.
Here we have Jaya TV screaming that Chennai has seen war-time operations and that the city has recovered.
To be sure, you only have to look at government advertorials in mainstream newspapers to know that politicians – regional, national – suffer from delusions of grandeur. And it is no surprise that a TV channel run by a relative of a close aide of Jayalalithaa will show the CM in good light. Which is where the media comes in – to critically look at claims that governments make and challenge faulty narratives. (Basically be something of a fourth estate.) So it’s expected of Jaya TV to wax eloquent about Jayalalithaa and her efforts, but you’d expect the mainstream media to take on the government narrative.
According to a piece in The Hindustan Times today, that isn’t exactly happening. The report is by Bangalore-based Sudipto Mondal, who is Karanataka correspondent for HT, and was in Chennai to cover the floods. The report states that local correspondents were being uncharacteristically helpful towards national media reporters who had paradropped into Chennai to cover the deluge.
This was happening because local reporters are too scared of Amma to report critically on her and her government. The AIADMK has filed more than 200 criminal defamation cases against journalists and politicians. The report states that it is this fear of being slapped with a legal suit owing to which local reporters are not doing stories critical of the government.
We spoke to Mondal to know more about his on-ground experience and he stated that there is definitely an air of suppression in the state. “Editors tell reporters two things. One, don’t go into flooded areas and die or get injured because the company won’t pay the medical expenses. Two, don’t be an activist. And being an activist here means, taking the establishment down,” he says.
For now, there’s been no defamation case in the wake of Chennai flood reporting. But many Chennai-based journalists we spoke to argue that the coverage on floods has focussed on Chennai’s so-called resilience that glosses over the government’s ineptitude. “Local newspapers do try and walk the middle path and not criticise the government excessively. This is because the AIADMK has a notorious history of filing defamation cases where the punishment is the procedure. Even if you have the economic wherewithal to fight the case, you are harassed since court cases go on for months and you are stuck in a legal battle,” says a journalist on condition of anonymity.
The journalist also pointed out that the anger citizens have felt against the AIADMK government has not translated into news reports. Some of the other journalists we spoke to chalk it up to the fact that negative reporting on Amma inevitably leads to the state government cutting off ads.
“I don’t think you can really blame reporters. It is only a problem with regard to the editors and management,” said a TV reporter who did not wish to be named. The reporter also stated that often ministers in the state cabinet call editors personally to get them to do stories.
Another journalist with a national daily based in Chennai stated that most editors want to avoid the trouble that comes with defamation cases because of which there is a tendency to exercise restraint. “For example, if a case has been filed in Madurai, I have to travel all the way to Madurai to appear before the court. Because of the harassment, there is a bit of self-censorship,” the journalist states.
Politicians controlling the media through ads and planting stories is not particular to Chennai. Journalists across states have to work under political pressure that often, not always, comes in the way of reporting without fear and favour. But what seems particular to Chennai is the fear of defamation cases that had led to a sort of self-censorship.
Dhanya Rajendran of The News Minute tells us that the AIADMK is an act apart when it comes to filing defamation cases. “The DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] filed 40 cases between 2006 and 2011, but the AIADMK has crossed 200, with even MLAs, ministers and even Panchayat members filing defamation complaints,” she says.
Rajendran states that journalists in Chennai always have the cloud of defamation looming over them and one gets conditioned to it. She, however, asserts that things are changing. “Within their scope, I think many have done what they can to expose the government. Some of the major publications in Chennai have been quite critical of the government and have written about the gaping holes in rescue and relief work. Could they have been more critical? Should they have been scathing in their criticism? Yes, surely. When one compares the flood coverage to the criticism that the DMK got during the 2G scam, it is surely mild. But it’s not like the media has completely ignored it and written stories praising government work.”
To be fair, the onus of pointing out the Tamil Nadu state government’s high-handedness and culture of control cannot rest solely with the local media. Late last week, AIADMK workers put up posters with a photoshopped image of Jayalalithaa as a character from the movie, Bhaubali, to show her as a saviour of flood victims.
The stark sycophancy at display has not warranted op-eds or discussions on mainstream media or outrage on Twitter. Contrast that to the noise that the Press Information Bureau’s photoshopped picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi touring Chennai generated. What if the CM of Uttar Pradesh or Delhi or Bihar had such posters plastered on the walls of the state capital at the time of a calamity?
The kind of intolerance towards dissent that Jayalalithaa has gotten away with, a Modi would have been hauled over coals and skewered. The AIADMK’s defamation spree is nothing short of intimidation and an attempt to quell free speech and press freedom. Why has that received such little mainstream media attention despite almost every channel and newspaper having a bureau in Chennai? The “tyranny of distance” cannot be the answer.