How Kerala and Delhi media covered the protest against Adani’s Vizhinjam port project

They had limited interest until the protest grew violent last month and some of the TV news coverage predictably became communal.

WrittenBy:Alenjith K Johny
Date:
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After four and a half months, Kerala’s fisherfolk on Wednesday “temporarily halted” their protest against the expansion of the Vizhinjam port in Thiruvananthapuram. The fisherfolk fear the Rs 7,525-crore project, controversially awarded to a Gautam Adani company by the previous Congress-led state government in 2015, will ruin their ecology, livelihoods and community life. Adani and his supporters counter that the construction of the “mega transshipment container terminal” will boost the economy and, thus, improve lives and livelihoods. Adani’s backers include not only the BJP, with which he is close, but also Kerala’s governing communists, who were against the project when they were in opposition, and upper caste Hindu groups. The protesters are mostly lower caste Christians. Adani, India’s richest person, has also found support among sections of the news media in Kerala and Delhi.

The media generally only paid intermittent attention to the mega project and its impact. Until, that is, the latest protests broke out and turned violent last month.

Vizhinjam’s fisherfolk started protesting against Adani’s project as soon as it got underway in late 2015 but their concerns found little space in the media. In January 2021, for instance, a sizeable crowd of fisherfolk held a demonstration at the port, but the protest was ignored by almost the entire mainstream media in Kerala. In fact, even the latest protest, which started on June 5, initially had few takers. The New Indian Express was the only prominent platform to report on the protest, on June 8. 

A few weeks later, the Hindu published a piece headlined, “The visionary who foresaw the potential of Vizhinjam to turn 100”, a profile of GG Menon, one of the engineers who “started the survey for developing Vizhinjam into a major seaport” back in the 1940s. The piece didn’t mention the protest against the Adani project at all. Regional TV news channels that had reported on the concerns of the fisherfolk in the past – Media One, Manorama News, Asianet News – didn’t cover the protest in June either.

It wasn’t until August 10, when the protestors marched to the state secretariat, that most TV news channels in Kerala began reporting on the protest. Media One conducted a debate titled “Should Adani be banned in Vizhinjam?” 

As did Manorama News, which remarked on “coastal rage” rocking the capital and asked if the government would “open its eyes” now. “The fishermen were praised during the floods but today they have to plead with the same people who praised them,” said the anchor, Shani Prabhakaran. 

The show included interviews with a few of the protesters who voiced concerns about the project. “It’s four years since we lost homes and we are still living in godowns or rented houses. Why has no action been taken?” one of them said.

On September 8, as Kerala celebrated the Onam festival, Asianet News ran a report about Vizhinjam’s fisherfolk fasting in protest against the Adani port project.

In print, most mainstream papers continued ignoring the protest. The party press though took occasional interest. Deshabhimani, a Malayalam paper aligned with the Communist Party of India, ran articles criticising the fisherfolk for opposing the project. Back in 2016, when the communists were in opposition, the same paper had called the Vizhinjam port project a way of “looting the seas”. 

Veekshanam, a pro-Congress daily which was quite appreciative of the project when the grand old party was in power, has run several critical articles against it over the past few months. The daily gave frontpage coverage to the protest at the secretariat on October 11. In 2014, when the project was first mooted, the paper had called it a “dream project”. 

Most newspapers covered the protest march to the secretariat on their frontpages on August 11, but not Janmabhumi, the BJP’s mouthpiece in Kerala. But after the protest turned violent, the paper’s November 28 frontpage ran the headline, “Case filed. Archbishop first defendant."

As for the “national media”, it gave scant attention to the protest until it turned violent in late November. News 18 hosted a debate on November 28 where the anchor, Shivani Gupta, “pointed out” the involvement of Christian communities in protests against “developmental projects” – she mentioned the stir against the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu – and said they were often driven by “vested interests”. 

“How concerning do you think it is that, repeatedly, the church’s role comes to light in developmental issues?” the anchor asked Sumanth Raman, a political analyst she had brought on for the debate. 

"It is wrong to paint it as a religious issue,” Raman replied. To which Gupta said, “No, it is not a religious issue, but there’s a religious group backing the protest.”

Kevin M Sunny, another panellist introduced as an activist, asked Gupta to ask reporters on the ground about “the role of Hindutva groups”, presumably referring to a counterprotest in support of Adani’s project involving Hindu nationalist organisations such as Hindu Aikya Vedi. 

“Has it been so easy for everyone to just say Hindutva is playing a role in Vizhinjam?” Gupta retorted.

Times Now too ran a debate that night titled, “Why free run for the fire bombers?” The anchor launched the discussion with a question, "Is the response of the state to the violence total surrender?"

On the panel was TV debate fixture Anand Ranganathan. "The communist doesn't need development," he declared. And communism, he continued, "is a foreign destructive ideology that wrecked every land and it has reached the shores of…They don't want anything in the name of development."

India Today got in on the act the next day. “Is the church fueling protests against the Adani port in Kerala?” the reporter, Akshita Nandagopal, demanded to know. She answered herself: yes, the church was provoking the fisherfolk to protest. 

On December 6, the day before the protest was halted, the TV channel’s  managing editor Gaurav Sawant anchored a debate on “church vs state in Kerala”. 

"Is their vested interest playing against the national interest?" Sawant asked, meaning the church.

TV pundit Rahul Easwar, who the anchor had invited for the debate, replied, “Most of my family studied in Christian schools so I respect them very deeply. But there must be a strand of their people that might have transnational interests who are not mindful of India’s interests.”

The FIR filed by the Kerala police in the wake of the violence does not claim any suspicion, let alone evidence, of the involvement of external “interests”.

Sawant apparently couldn’t care less. “Considering the past Latin Catholic controversies,” the editor demanded, “shouldn’t there be investigations and convictions?” Sawant didn’t specify who he wanted convicted or for what precisely.  

The “national press”, on the other hand, covered the protest more matter-of-factly, simply reporting what was going on the ground and the reactions to it. The morning after the violence, the Hindu reported that the "protestors vandalised police stations”. The New Indian Express carried a frontpage report on November 28 highlighting the targeting of a police station and the resultant booking of priests. Another report noted that the protest broke into "violence in which fishermen came face to face with local Hindu groups".

The country’s most-circulated English newspaper, the Times of India, had no reports from Vizhijam in its Delhi edition that day while its editorial dwelt on the mass protests in China instead. Hindustan Times too largely gave the story a miss.

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