In Kerala, 'targeting' of Asianet brings CPM’s frayed ties with the media back in focus

Two days after SFI barged into the channel’s office, the crime branch raided its premises.

WrittenBy:Rejimon Kuttappan
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In the alleged targeting of Asianet News in Kerala and the CPM leadership’s failure to condemn it, the party and the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s relationship with the media is now back in focus.

On Sunday, the crime branch searched Asianet News Kozhikode office over a complaint from a CPM-backed Independent MLA. This came two days after the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the governing party in Kerala, barged into the Malayalam news channel’s Kochi office.

While legislators, political parties, and journalists' unions have condemned the incident and termed it an attack on the media, the CPM’s leadership is silent. Even the party’s general secretary Sitaram Yechury, who had hit out at the Narendra Modi government on the same day the income tax department searched the BBC India’s offices last month. Or his party politburo, which was quick to release a statement on BBC titled “intimidating media”.

The 28-year-old Malayalam channel is owned by union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar.

But what led to the police search?

Last week, Nilambur Independent MLA PV Anvar had raised questions about a segment aired on November 10 last year on the channel’s show Roving Reporter.

The show, which features in-depth ground reports themed on one issue in each episode, had focussed on synthetic drug abuse among school and college students in Kerala.

The report was by senior correspondent Naufal Bin Yusaf, whose investigative pieces have often irked CPM's cadres in Kannur.

The show on November 10 had come on the heels of an anti-drug campaign across schools endorsed by excise minister MB Rajesh. It alleged that students were deployed as drug mules in the district and many of them were also sexually harassed. 

But the issue was raised in the Kerala assembly only last week by Anvar. Referring to allegations by a minor interviewee, the MLA asked if the matter was examined, a complaint filed or a POCSO case lodged. He also asked if it was correct to not inform the police and go for a media interview.

The chief minister said that “a case has been registered to check the veracity of the story; abuse claims couldn't be verified and POCSO sections can be included in the case”. He said police had probed the case based on a complaint filed by the victim's father, and a report has been submitted in court. He also said that police had to be informed before talking to the media. 

While the chief minister’s response did not affirm that Asianet News report was fake, his answers were tweaked by CPM cadres to attack Naufal and the news channel on social media, calling the interview “staged”. The channel had added an audio clip that was part of a report aired in August to the episode containing several interviews in November for recreation purposes. It did not add a disclaimer mentioning the enactment.

The SFI barged into the channel’s office on Friday, a POCSO case was filed against the channel on Saturday, and crime branch sleuths searched its premises on Sunday in Kozhikode.

But this is not the first time Asianet News or its journalists have come under attack from the CPM or the Pinarayi government.

Frayed relationship

Last month, Vinu V John, an anchor and senior journalist at Asianet News, was summoned by Kerala police over a case filed by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and Rajya Sabha CPM member Elamaram Kareem.

This came nearly a year after CITU and CPM cadres marched to the channel’s headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram to seek John's resignation, a day after he hit out at Kareem on his show in March, 2022. 

After an autorickshaw driver, Yaseer, was injured in an attack by demonstrators during a violent protest by unions in Kerala last year, Kareem sought to downplay the incident and its coverage by the media. “They say someone was scratched and pinched.”

On his show News Hour the same day, John said, “They (unionists) should have vandalised the vehicle in which Elamaram Kareem was traveling. And then the occupants – if he was traveling with his family – should have been de-boarded. The tyres of the vehicle carrying Elamaram Kareem should have been deflated….Kareem, like Yasser, should have been slapped in the face and left bleeding from his nose. Then he would have realised whether it was just scratching, pinching, or insulting.”

The CPM and CITU interpreted John’s comments as a direct call to attack Kareem, and marched to the channel’s office in the state capital in March last year. While everyone believed that things had eventually settled down, John found out that Kareem had filed a police case against him in April without informing him when he went to renew his passport in June last year.

Based on that case, the police summoned him last month. 

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But it’s not just Asianet

Media professionals in Kerala see Pinarayi Vijayan as a leader with a dislike, or even contempt, for the media. With little shift in this perception after the leader’s appointment as the chief minister.

In 2016, contrary to the practice of holding press conferences after Cabinet meetings, Vijayan dropped interactions with the media and started issuing press releases.

In 2017, when journalists went to cover a “meeting” at a hotel in Thiruvananthapuram, they were ousted as the chief minister yelled “kadakku purath”. Get out. It was a closed-door meeting with RSS leaders reportedly mediated by Yoga practitioner Sri M.

In 2020, the chief minister’s amendment to the Kerala Police Act, aimed at preventing cyberattacks against women, was seen as a bid to curtail media freedom. It sought to introduce a new provision to criminalise defamatory content but was rolled back following outrage by the opposition and civil society.

All this besides certain restrictions on the media from covering proceedings in the Assembly.  

But long before Pinarayi Vijayan was referred to by journalists as “Mundudatha Modi”, meaning “Modi in dhoti”, for his record on press freedom, the leader and the media used to love each other when he was a minister in the EK Nayanar government from 1996 to 1998. 

But as he quit the cabinet and moved to party ranks, allegations popped up about him allegedly receiving kickbacks from a Canadian company. The media began asking tough questions, and Vijayan, gradually, began to hate it.

And during these years, Vijayan and Achuthanandan – who is also a CPM founding member – became rivals in the party. While Achuthanandan knew how to handle the media, Vijayan failed, and gradually morphed into his current Stalinist image. 

Since then, Vijayan is not known to be lenient with the press, except perhaps one occasion in 2016. The CPM leader had called a press conference before a rally ahead of elections. As the media was late, he delayed his press conference for 30 minutes because he wanted the event to go live. But it was only a rare moment when he needed the media more than the media needed him.

Disclaimer: The writer is an independent journalist. He appears as a panelist on Kerala-based media channels, including Asianet.

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