How K Chandrasekhar Rao is crushing Telangana’s ‘anti-establishment’ media

Journalist Revathi Pogadadanda’s arrest and harassment is the latest example.

ByPrateek Goyal
How K Chandrasekhar Rao is crushing Telangana’s ‘anti-establishment’ media
  • whatsapp
  • copy

In Telangana, aggressive reporting on misgovernance could put you under police observation — or even land you in prison. 

Case in point is Revathi Pogadadanda, journalist and former CEO of Mojo TV. She claims her reporting on government negligence — and her subsequent refusal to refrain from reporting — resulted in her being jailed for eight days on a “flimsy” charge.

Most top TV news channels in the state are reportedly controlled by the governing party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, led by Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao. The TRS itself owns three media outlets — T News, Namasthe Telangana and Telangana Today. KCR’s close associates, PV “Megha” Krishna Reddy and Rameshwar Rao, have stakes in several news channels, including NTV, TV5, 10TV and TV9.

As a result, taking “anti-establishment” stances have spelled trouble for several journalists in the state.

How Pogadadanda got on KCR’s radar

Pogadadanda was the anchor and CEO of Mojo TV, which was launched in May 2018. The channel gained traction with its public interest stories, which were aggressively followed up by its reporters. 

In April 2019, over 20 students committed suicide in Telangana when the results of the Class 12 examinations were declared. According to the results website, about three lakh students had “failed” — though the students themselves had been sure of passing. 

Investigations revealed the website was faulty and had messed up the results.

Pogadadanda was the first journalist to air this story on Mojo TV. According to her, about 40 students had committed suicide. “Later, it turned out that students who scored 99 marks were shown to have scored zero marks on the website,” she tells Newslaundry. “Large-scale protests by parents began in Telangana when this was discovered after recounting.”

The website given the contract to process the data and results was Globearena Technologies Pvt Ltd. Pogadadanda says, “Guess who owns Globearena? The brother-in-law of KT Rama Rao, who is KCR’s son.”

Pogadadanda hosted a show featuring the mother of a girl who had killed herself after the results were declared. “The girl was the daughter of a farmer who had ended his life some years ago,” Pogadadanda explains. “Her education had been crowdfunded by villagers…She was obviously heartbroken.” 

Pogadadanda says Mojo TV began reporting extensively on the suicides. “Other channels hardly gave any airtime to the protesters,” she says. “They were only forced to show the story after four days of intense protests.”

This wasn’t the first time Mojo TV had reported against the government. In March 2019, the channel campaigned for the resignation of Health Minister E Rajender over lapses in the government’s administration of the polio vaccine.

“After administering the polio vaccine, infants were given a medicine called Tramadol instead of Paracetamol to control fever,” Pogadadanda says. “As a result, two infants died and 90 were admitted in ICU. We did the story and took the health minister head-on. This was a major lapse by the health department. Yet, none of the news channels were running the story.”

Mojo TV and the Lok Sabha election

Till this time, Pogadadanda hadn’t been threatened for her reporting. All that changed, she says, with her channel’s coverage of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

KCR’s daughter, K Kavitha, was standing from her constituency of Nizamabad. Unexpectedly, 180 farmers decided to file their nominations from Nizamabad, hoping to draw attention to their distress and government apathy.

Pogadadanda knew this would be one of the biggest political stories in the 2019 battle for Telangana. 

Mojo TV started a dedicated news segment featuring the farmer candidates, giving them space to discuss their problems and why they had entered the electoral fray. As the segment began to make waves in Nizamabad, Mojo TV reporters and camerapersons in Nizamabad were allegedly harassed by TRS members and supporters of Kavitha.

S Vijay, a Mojo TV cameraman, went to Nizamabad to cover a dharna against Kavitha during the Lok Sabha poll. “Suddenly, 20 TRS men rounded us up,” he says. “They remained while our reporter was going live, and then left.”

The following day, a Mojo TV reporter and cameraman were assaulted while covering Kavitha’s press conference in Nizamabad. The cameraman, P Bapuji, tells Newslaundry, “After covering the press conference, we were asked by our office to do a live. While we were doing so outside the office of the TRS party and some party members raised objections.” 

When the crew moved to an open space away from the office, they were followed by TRS workers. “They said, ‘You guys are acting too smart. Why are you covering dharnas of farmers during election? Who told you to do that?’ When we said we were just doing our job, they started assaulting us and broke my camera,” says Bapuji. 

What sealed KCR’s anger against her, Pogadadanda says, is what happened a few days later. On polling day, Mojo TV broadcast a video of an elderly woman stopping Kavitha from entering a polling booth. The video was widely circulated. 

Kavitha later lost her Nizamabad seat by 80,000 votes.

The Sabarimala debate and police complaint

Pogadadanda says she was now officially on KCR’s radar. She claims the authorities finally blotted her career by dredging up a “cold case” from January 2019.

To understand the issue, let’s go to October 2018, when the hot topic of discussion was the entry of women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple. At the time, Mojo TV sent its reporter, Kavitha Jakkal, to Sabarimala. 

Jakkal was one of the few women who entered the temple that year, and Mojo TV faced intense backlash from religious groups in Hyderabad. While covering a protest against the women entering Sabarimala, in Hyderabad’s Dharna Chowk, the channel’s journalists were assaulted by the protesters.

On January 23, Pogadadanda moderated a debate in the Mojo TV studio on the assault. The debate featured another Mojo TV anchor, G Raghu, social activists Rekha and Krishna Kumari, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Varaprasad. 

Pogadadanda says, “Varaprasad himself had shown interest in participating in the show. During the debate, Raghu asked him why Varaprasad, as a Dalit leader, was doing nothing for the uplift of Dalits. The discussion got heated then — to the extent that the anchor had to tell him to leave the show. The argument continued even after the show concluded.”

In January 2019, Varaprasad filed a complaint at the Banjara Hills police station against Pogadadanda, Raghu, Rekha and Krishna Kumari under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act. Pogadadanda was “Accused No 2” in the complaint. She filed a cross-complaint and petition to attempt to quash the case.

For five months, Pogadadanda says, nothing happened. “But as we continued reporting against the misdoings of the government, a whole conspiracy was planned to shut us down.” In July, she was detained and arrested as Accused No 2. The police took no action against the other three named in the complaint, including Raghu.

However, Pogadadanda says her arrest was linked to something much larger: the takeover of Mojo TV.

Mojo TV’s takeover

In May 2019, Mojo TV was under pressure. At the time, its majority shares were held by Hari Kiran Chereddi, a businessman and angel investor. 

Chereddi was allegedly forced to hand the shares over to Kalepu Gopi Krishna and Madhavarapu Vamshi Krishna — said to be close friends of Ram Juppali, the son of KCR’s close aide Rameshwar Rao of the My Home Group. 

Pogadadanda vehemently opposed the move, feeling the new management would not have the channel’s best interests at heart. She says there were concerted attempts to control the channel’s majority shares “by hook or by crook, so that the operations of the channel can be controlled”.

Narasimhan, a senior reporter familiar with these developments, tells Newslaundry that Chereddi was “literally abducted by cops from the airport” when he was about to board a flight to Dubai. “He was threatened by the police. Under pressure from the state government and Rameshwar Rao, Chereddi was forced to hand over all the shares of the company to people associated with Rameshwar Rao.”

When Newslaundry asked Chereddi what had happened, he said, “I don’t have anything to say about it, nor do I have anything to do with that organisation. Please don’t call me again. Thank you very much.”

On May 21, Pogadadanda says Chereddi’s relative told her Mojo TV’s “deal was sealed”, and that KCR and his son wanted the shares. On May 22 at 6 pm, she says, Chereddi told her the channel had been taken by Rameshwar Rao and Megha Krishna Reddy “at zero amount”.

“After that, I did a show, appealing to KCR to stay away from Mojo as it’s the only channel that has remained for the public,” she says. “During the show, I also said that through Rameshwar Rao and Megha Krishna Reddy, the trio of KCR, his son KTR and KCR’s nephew Joginapally Santosh Kumar [a TRS MP] gained control over channels like Nav Telangana, Telangana Today and TV9. But they should not take my channel.”

Hours later, Mojo TV’s satellite link was disconnected, allegedly on Chereddi’s directive. Fourteen days later, on June 3, Pogadadanda was forced to resign.

“I was told that if I don’t resign, they’ll hold the salaries of other employees and shut down the company,” Pogadadanda says. “I wasn’t left with any option, and I had to resign.”

Pogadadanda says to receive her severance pay, she was forced to sign an agreement which said for the next two years and 10 months, she could not work in any Telugu media organisation, electronic, print, digital, or social media. Newslaundry has a copy of this agreement.

Pogadadanda’s arrest and police discrepancies

On July 11, Pogadadanda received a telephone call from the inspector of the Banjara Hills police station, asking her to report for an “inquiry” related to Mojo TV. Pogadadanda told the inspector she was no longer with the channel, but he could email her questions if required. 

On July 12, the police raided Pogadadanda’s house at 6 am and arrested her. Pogadadanda had no prior criminal record, but four teams — from Banjara Hills, Jubilee Hills, Cyberabad and Rachakonda police stations — arrived to arrest her. They refused to tell her the charges, and took her barefoot to the police station. 

“The police told me I have to give my statement in some case,” she says. “I had no clue. I was not even allowed to wear my footwear. When I reached the station, I was told I was arrested in the case filed by Varaprasad, in which I was Accused No 2.”

On the same day, at 10.30 pm, Pogadadanda was produced in front of a magistrate. “When the court proceedings started, the judge questioned the police on how I could be arrested if the police had not even made a case diary. The police was given two more days to file the case diary and I was lodged in Chanchalguda Jail for eight days.”

On July 22, Pogadadanda was granted bail by the Additional Metropolitan Sessions judge. Newslaundry accessed this order, which says, “Accused No 2 has not committed the offences alleged against her. Further, the Accused No 2 made her attempt to somewhat pacify the heated discussion between Accused No 1 [Raghu] and complainant [Varaprasad].” 

Newslaundry contacted KS Rao, the assistant commissioner of police, Banjara Hills, and investigating officer in the case, to ask why only Pogadadanda had been arrested. Rao says, “What do you think from your side, why she was targeted?” He laughed, and continued, “One of the accused ran away. Another accused [Rekha] herself was a Dalit, and the other accused did not have any role in the offence.”

Why was action taken six months after the complaint was filed in January? Rao said, “We gave her notices, she didn’t bother to respond. She was incommunicable.”

In the remand case diary, Rao wrote that Pogadadanda did not respond to any notices. However, Newslaundry accessed a document with call data records that tells a different story.

The document, which details all calls made and received by Pogadadanda, shows that she telephoned assistant police commissioner Rao after receiving the notices and spoke to him multiple times. She received a notice on May 20 and spoke to Rao on May 21. She also spoke to him on May 22, 23 and 27. 

Rekha, the activist who had been on the January 23 show and is named as a co-accused in Varaprasad’s complaint, told Newslaundry that “nothing of the sort” described by Varaprasad had happened. 

“I was present on the show,” she says. “In fact, Varaprasad was the one who was shouting at the top of his voice. No one made any kind of casteist remark or racial slur during the show. Except Revati, no one was arrested. She is been targeted for doing honest journalism.” Rekha, like Varaprasad, is a Dalit.

The remand case diary also mentions Prem Gandhi, an eyewitness to the show. Gandhi says, “One of the anchors had a heated argument with Varaprasad. He asked him to get out. But I don’t think anyone made any casteist remark in particular.”

Newslaundry also contacted Raghu, who is Accused No 1. He says, “I was not arrested. I had approached the high court which issued an order saying none of us [Pogadadanda, Raghu, Rekha and Krishna Kumari] should be arrested till the submission of the final report by the police.”

New management’s treatment of Mojo TV employees

Mojo TV’s operations were suspended in August 2019. About 190 employees were dismissed and given either a settlement of three months’ salary, or one month’s pending salary. 

Some employees claim they weren’t given either — and they’re the same employees who protested Pogadadanda being forced to resign. 

Raghu, named in the police case, says he was “hounded” by the police for 20 days. He and his wife, Laxmi Praveena, who worked in the human resources department, were terminated from the company.

Praveena says she and Raghu did not receive their settlements. She says, “I wrote to the company in September and was told they will prioritise my case…They said they had prepared cheques for both of us and had conveyed messages to us many times — but nothing of such sort has happened. They also said, in an email, that they had information that I was in the vicinity of the office and chose not to come to the office…How ridiculous is that? The police were on the hunt for us and we were struggling to prove the innocence of my husband.”

Newslaundry accessed this email, which was sent to Praveena by Gopi Krishna Kalepu, a director of Media Nxt India Pvt Ltd, the company that used to run Mojo TV. The email supports Praveena’s claims. 

The email also says: “After resorting to abandoning your job and ignoring our efforts to help you to get your settlement dues, you chose a route of threatening us on the grounds of discrimination and torture which is nothing but blackmailing the management and extortion mindset. Please be mindful that everyone has a right to pursue the legal recourse and defend oneself. The management is very much  prepared to defend themselves with all the necessary proofs and witnesses defend their case.”

Newslaundry asked Gopi Krishna Kalepu about the non-payment of final settlements to some employees. He said, “We have given settlement to 179 employees and terminated three of them. We have not given their settlement because they were indulged in unlawful activities. They were involved in something against the organisation.”

What unlawful activities? Kalepu did not respond. About Raghu and Praveena, he said, “Praveena’s husband had a police case against him and she didn’t come to the office, so we had to terminate her.”

Newslaundry tried to contact the office of Rameshwar Rao but he was unavailable for comment.

N Venugopal: ‘I’ve become a nuisance for KCR’

Pogadadanda isn’t alone in bearing the brunt of alleged government displeasure.

N Venugopal, formerly with the Indian Express and now editor of Veekshanam, a monthly Telugu magazine, says he’s been in the line of fire. His fault is writing articles critical of the Telangana government’s economic policies, and his weekly column in Telugu newspaper Nava Telangana.

In November, Venugopal was booked by the Telangana police under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Telangana Public Security Act, reportedly for his critical writing. He was also made Accused No 7, but not arrested, in a case of “Maoist conspiracy against the state”. 

Surprisingly, the remand case diary — which claims Venugopal is a member of Virasam, an organisation known for its radical Left stance — lists Venugopal as “absconding”.

Venugopal says, “Since 1989, I’ve been writing about the economic policies of the Telugu region. I have written about the economic policies of YS Rajasekhara Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu, and been critical about them. But the problem with this government is no one should criticise their wrong policies.”

He adds, “Basically, I’ve become a nuisance for KCR as I keep writing and talking about the inefficient economic policies of the government in my articles and speeches. And as I am Varavara Rao’s nephew, they think about branding me as a Maoist as they have branded him.” Activist Varavara Rao was arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case for alleged “Maoist links” in 2018.

Venugopal says he was a part of the Telangana movement and so KCR knows him well. “Civil rights activists, writers, journalists, artists, leaders, students — we all worked together in Telangana…But after the formation of Telangana, KCR sidelined everybody and started ruling in an autocratic manner.” 

During the Telangana movement, a “Telangana dhoom dham” programme was started, where citizens could sing and recite poems on injustices meted out to the people of Telangana. When the state was formed, KCR took this a step further and formed the Telangana Samskruthika Sarthi, employing 500 singers. This time, Venugopal says, the singers were tasked with spreading government propaganda. “They spread propaganda of government policies through their songs,” he explains. 

He also says KCR has “subdued” prominent voices of Telangana. 

When KCR became chief minister in June 2014, he appointed Venugopal to the governing council of the Telangana Press Academy. However, Venugopal continued writing against KCR’s ineffective policies which, he says, wasn’t well-received. As a result, his magazine Veekshanam suffered.

“After 2014, we received not a single government advertisement,” he says. “There is no information public relation minister or authority in the state. The chief minister is the one who decides who should get advertisements and who shouldn’t.”

Sources in Telangana’s political establishment claim ministers in KCR’s government aren’t allowed to appoint their own personal secretaries — he does it instead. A source told Newslaundry that MLAs and TRS ministers even avoid talking on their phones as they believe their phones are under surveillance.

M Kodandaram: ‘Dissent gets you hounded’

Professor M Kodandaram, one of the most prominent voices of the Telangana movement, has been subjected to police raids at his house for raising his voice against the TRS government. 

Kodandaram was the chairman of the Telangana Joint Action Committee, which spearheaded the Telangana movement. In March 2018, he formed a political party, the Telangana Jan Samiti, which is vocal in its criticism of the TRS government.

Kodandaram says, “During the Telangana movement, to confront the strong and mighty political opponents of coastal Andhra, KCR took the support of civil society. After becoming chief minister, he doesn’t tolerate any kind of protest…He doesn’t allow any voice against him in the media and has got control over many media houses through his men.”

Kodandaram claims some government representatives are tasked with reading the newspapers every morning and “warning” editors if they see any article against the government. “They warn them not to publish anti-government articles. They also ask the media not to cover protests, or else they will not get advertisements. Hyderabad has become a place where it has become very difficult to get permission for dharnas or rallies. For us, we have to go to court to get permission for our rallies. Preventive custody and Section 144 are extensively used in this regime.”

On February 22, 2017, Kodandaram’s house was raided at 3 am by about 300 cops. The raid was conducted to arrest 25 activists who intended to take out a rally protesting unemployment in Telangana, Kodandaram says. 

Kodandaram seems to bother KCR no end; in October 2017, the chief minister held a press conference where he criticised Kodandaram for nearly two hours.

Kodandaram says the media is under the control of the state government. “Any kind of dissent or freedom of expression can get you hounded in this state.”

newslaundry logo

Pay to keep news free

Complaining about the media is easy and often justified. But hey, it’s the model that’s flawed.

You may also like