Sakshi TV, a Telugu news channel, has been off TV screens in Andhra Pradesh since June 10, owing to a cable ban placed on it for its coverage of the Kapu quota stir. However, the channel getting banned is only one part of the story and the challenges Sakshi TV is facing are indicative of a larger, wider ‘invisible’ media censorship that is growing roots in both Andhra Pradesh and Telengana .
The long-standing demand for reservation for Backward Classes (BC) by the Kapu community in Andhra Pradesh has proved to be a headache for the state government and Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu. The Kapus constitute about 27 per cent of the population in Andhra Pradesh and under the leadership of 64-year-old Mudragada Padmanabhan, the community has been clamouring for reservation.
The protests, which have parallels with the agitations launched by Patidars in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana, have often been violent, resulting in a whole train, a police station, and vehicles being torched in January this year. After the protest threatened to turn increasingly violent, the Andhra government promised that Rs 500 crore will be allotted to the State Kapu Welfare and Development Corporation in the fiscal year of 2015-16. It also promised to allot Rs 1,000 crore every year, starting 2016-17.
The government said that it would expedite the study on the socio-economic status of Kapus by the Justice KL Manjunath Commission, and implement its recommendations. However, when seven people were arrested in connection with the January train burning incident, it raised Padmanabhan’s hackles. He demanded that the cases be withdrawn. The government refused, and the net result was that Padmanabhan went on a fast.
Sakshi TV accorded full coverage to the events and as a result attracted the ire of the Andhra Pradesh government. A cable ban followed and the channel continues to be off screens in all of Andhra Pradesh since June 10. The justification being given is that the channel’s coverage of the Kapu agitation would have “incited people”. Andhra Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister, N Chinna Rajappa, reportedly said that the channel will be beamed to TV sets again only when Mudragada calls off his fast.
The channel is run by Indira Television Limited, a company promoted by YSR Congress Party chief Jaganmohan Reddy, who happens to be the political rival of Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. The channel was launched in 2009 in what was then undivided Andhra Pradesh. It has come to be perceived as a mouthpiece of the YSR Congress by commentators because of the programming and stances it has taken. In fact, the channel was launched just before the state poll campaign — at a time when the most news channels were seen as favourable to Naidu.
This is not the first time that Sakshi TV has faced heat from the Naidu government.
Using a recently-passed Andhra Pradesh Special Courts Act 2015, Yanamala Ramakrishnudu, the state’s finance minister, announced his intentions to take over control of the management of the Sakshi group, earlier this month. In a recent interview, the minister said since Jaganmohan Reddy’s media empire “was born out of money looted from the state”, his government intends to take over the control of the management. Reddy is currently under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) for owning disproportionate assets, allegedly amassed during his father YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s tenure as Chief Minister.
K Ramachandra Murthy, Editorial Director, Sakshi Media Group, told Newslaundry, “These are just intimidating tactics. The case against Jaganmohan Reddy already being with the CBI and the ED, it is out of the jurisdiction of the Andhra Pradesh state government. They are just using this threat to demoralise the employees. We had covered the Kapu agitation as a part of our job.”
Only a few months before this, well-known TV journalist Kommineni Srinivasa Rao announced the end of his popular program Live Show with KSR on N-TV, another Telugu channel. His exit from N-TV raised eyebrows in the local media circles and according to a veteran journalist who requested anonymity, Rao was forced to quit the channel for his anti-Naidu views. Rao then joined Sakshi TV.
If the rumours and whispers are true, Naidu is only following in the footsteps of his friend-turned-bête noire K Chandrashekar Rao, the Chief Minister of Telangana, popularly known as KCR. Immediately after assuming office, Rao ordered two channels, TV9 and ABN Andhrajyothi, to be taken off air, citing programmes which allegedly made “derogatory comments” on Telangana legislators.
KCR had even said in a public speech, “We will bury them some 10 km. We won’t hesitate to break their neck and then throw them out.”
“If they want to operate here, they should salute and respect the people of Telangana,” he had said.
While KCR used “Telangana pride” as justification, in 2015, Naidu served notice to T-news (a channel owned by KCR, no surprises here!), invoking “public interest”, for airing audio tapes of the “Cash for vote” scam. At the core of these clamps placed on TV media in both states is the bitter-political rivalry between the TDP and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), which is the governing party in Telangana and of which KCR is the chief. In the battle for public perception and mind-space, a pliant media is, of course, a big plus.
“The ban on Sakshi TV is meant to be serve as a larger message sent to the channel, and other media outlets, that you have to toe the line of the government, or be prepared to incur heavy financial losses,” said TS Sudhir, Hyderabad-based Print and TV journalist, who till recently was Editor (South) of the news channel India Today.
The political environment in both Telugu states has been vitiated by large-scale poaching of Opposition MLAs by the governing party in the recent past. In Andhra, 19 MLAs of YSR Congress have switched to the TDP, while some more are expected to cross over soon. In Telangana, 12 of TDP’s 15 MLAs have shifted allegiance to the TRS camp, causing a near obliteration of Naidu’s party in India’s newest state. Twenty-five MLAs of the Congress have also joined TRS. Interestingly, the regional media coverage of these political developments was limited to only reporting the news, and not questioning the ethics of governing parties. The national television media too has not devoted much airtime to the open poaching of MLAs. Contrast this with the coverage dedicated to similar developments in states like Uttarakhand. Not just that, even the Kapu agitation has not received much play in the national media, when once compares it to the protests by the Patidars and the Jats.
“TV channels and papers in both states have been asked in a not-so-subtle manner to go easy in their criticism of the ruling party and the government. The consequences for not doing so are there for everyone to see,” said a reliable media source, who also requested anonymity. Two other senior journalists who are familiar with the development confirmed the same.
One of them, a regular panellist on TV channels, said, “Many times, channel representatives ask me to not criticise TRS too much. It is becoming the unwritten rule in a way.”
A retired editor said, “With the action against the channel, other media outlets are practising self-censorship. They do not want to antagonise the government. Just look at how many media outlets are standing up for Sakshi TV.”
While Sakshi TV’s employees and members of the Indian Journalists Union (IJU) took out a march in Hyderabad on June 15 and submitted a memorandum to Governor ESL Narasimhan, other media outlets did not stand in solidarity with the channel. For example, ABN Andhrajyothi, the channel which was taken off by the Telangana government, did not accord any coverage to the protest march. Eenadu, known to be favourable to Naidu, relegated the news to Page 15. There was no mention of the march in The Hindu, Indian Express, and Deccan Chronicle.
Secretary-General of IJU, Amar Devulapalli, explained, “While Sakshi group has been quite anti-establishment, most news outlets are either pro-government, or seem to have been asked by management to not play up the news.”
Everyone in Hyderabad media seems to know where the invisible line is drawn.