Unravelling the friction between CPIM and Kerala’s major media houses

Dating back to EMS Namboodiripad’s government, it’s now reached new lows.

WrittenBy:Haritha John
Date:
Pinarayi Vijayan.
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Malayalam news anchor Hashmi Taj Ibrahim, known for his passionate delivery of opinions on his show Encounter, unleashed a powerful monologue in defence of his colleague Vineetha VG, recently named in a bizarre case. 

The drama unfolded on December 23, 2023 after Vineetha, simply reporting on a protest where a shoe was hurled at Pinarayi Vijayan’s vehicle, found herself accused of conspiring against Pinarayi. This absurdity ignited a wave of outrage among journalists, culminating in Hashmi's electrifying on-camera address.

“Phone call snippets and flimsy accusations? That's not how you silence us,” Hashmi said. “Vineetha is one of us, and we stand by her.”

He challenged the authorities: “If you are doing this only to scare us – knowing well that the case is a sham and will fail miserably in the court – register 100 cases, not just one. We are not going to cut off our tongues and place them in baskets to do your bidding.”

Ironically, Hashmi is a former leader of the Students Federation of India, the students’ wing of the CPIM. He has received both adulation and flak for his recent aggressive criticism of the party and the Pinarayi government. 

“This is a government that claims it stands for freedom of the media. I am not trying to narrow this down to Vineetha’s case or its proceedings, but is it right for a party like CPIM and a government led by this party that has complained about our country's press freedom index slipping, to do the same thing? This is a concern I have, just like other journalists,” Hashmi told TNM.

The friction between Kerala’s governing CPIM and the state’s major media houses seems to have entered a new phase of lows. Their antagonism toward each other goes right back to the time EMS Namboodiripad established one of the world’s first democratically elected communist governments.

In the last 70 years, the tussle has mostly been on ideological grounds. In the eyes of a large section of the media, the communists have been nothing more than legatees of dictators such as Joseph Stalin and Mao. And the communists have traditionally seen the media as proxies of Kerala’s old rich and modern multinational corporations. While they managed to find a way to coexist in the past despite their differences, the last few years have seen both sides take their gloves off.

An urban legend goes that when the undivided Communist Party of India was riding a wave of popular support in the 1950s, Mammen Mappilai, the owner-editor of Malayala Manorama, one of the state’s oldest and most widely circulated language dailies, threatened to die by suicide if they came to power. This was repeated to us by M Swaraj, a CPIM state committee member and former MLA.

KM Mathew, Manorama’s former editor, however contradicted this in his autobiography Ettamathe Mothiram. According to Mathew, Mammen Mappilai’s concern was that if communists came to power, Kerala might resemble Russia, stifling independent thought and action, prompting contemplation of suicide.

Led by Mappilai, a significant section of the Kerala media sided with the religious groups and landlord communities that launched the Vimochana Samaram or Liberation Struggle against the undivided CPI’s efforts to reform land ownership and education. The campaign resulted in the dismissal of the Namboodiripad government by a presidential fiat. It was later found to be masterminded by the Congress party and bankrolled by American CIA, which was insecure about the proximity between Kerala’s communists and their ideologues in China, USSR and Cuba.

The Vimochana Samaram is often used as a metaphor for the bitterness between the two sides. A lot has changed in the world and India’s place in it since the days of the anti-communist uprising. The party in Kerala has shed much of its early revolutionary zeal and the media has taken a decisive rightward turn in its outlook. What was once a tussle between two global ideologies has today degenerated into personal rivalries and street fights.

What is happening now?

There was a time when Kerala’s media and the communists wrote rejoinders to each other in the editorial pages of the state’s flourishing Malayalam newspapers. Now they often settle things in shouting matches on prime time television. On some occasions, things are also taken outside the studio.

While there have been some epic battles between the CPIM and the Manorama group in the past, the modern era has been defined by the clashes between the party and Asianet News which is promoted by BJP-nominated Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar. Between July and October 2020, the CPIM boycotted the news channel saying it was not allowing its representatives to air their views. (The BJP too had boycotted the channel for two years; it ended only in July 2023.)

Less than two years later, things took a turn for the worse. On March 28, 2022, Asianet News anchor Vinu V John, one of Kerala’s most aggressive TV anchors, was in his element during a primetime show. He launched a tirade against the state government for its failure to control violence and lumpen behaviour by trade union activists during the Bharat Bandh.

Vinu singled out CPIM MP Elamaram Kareem, who tried to justify the violence, for a particularly harsh attack, saying, “Elamara Kareem’s vehicle should have been attacked. And the people in it whether it was his family, they also should be brought out of the vehicle. His vehicle’s tyre should have been punctured. Just like Yasir [a victim of bandh day violence] was treated, Elamaram Kareem should have been hit on his face. Then he will understand whether it was equal to scratching or pinching.”

Soon, activists of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions picketed his house and plastered the walls with posters condemning the anchor. The posters were in the name of CITU Peroorkada Area Committee, which gave a call for protests against Vinu and to socially boycott him.

A few days later, trade union workers of various political parties except the BJP marched to Asianet to register their protest against the comment made by Vinu.

On Elamaram Kareem’s complaint, Vinu was charged under IPC sections 504 (intentionally insults, and thereby gives provocation to any person, intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause him to break the public peace, or to commit any other offence) and 120 (o) (causing nuisance) of the Kerala Police Act. Vinu became aware of the FIR after nearly a year when he tried to renew his passport. He was summoned by police for questioning in February 2023.

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News Hour by Vinu John.

CPIM cyber warriors, or ‘cyber poralis’ as they are called, often say Vinu John is to Kerala what Arnab Goswami is to India. They allege that a majority of his shows in the last few years have been against the government either over controversies or some policy decisions.

On his primetime show News Hour, Vinu John often loses composure – perhaps his sense of balance too – during slanging matches with the CPIM. But it would be a stretch to compare him or other aggressive anchors in Kerala to primetime hosts of English and Hindi channels, who are outright communal. There have been several occasions where journalists in Kerala did their due diligence and found concrete evidence of failures by the Left government. It is also true that the TV media has often been criticised for sensationalism and many stories against the government have fallen flat.

In June 2023, K Vidya, a leader of the SFI, was arrested in a fake certificate case. As his channel played up the story of Vidya’s arrest, Vinu posted pictures showing her protesting outside the Asianet office during the March standoff between the channel and the governing party. He had a field day mocking the communist party and its student outfit. As he launched into the student leader and her organisation, Vinu´s diatribe against a young person was seen as excessive and too personal by many even in the journalist fraternity.

In November 2022, another major fracas broke out between the channel and the party. Asianet aired a series of investigative stories titled “Narcotics is a dirty business” as part of its initiative against the drug crisis in the state. On November 10, the channel featured an interview with a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Kannur who claimed to have been abused after being coerced into using drugs.

According to the girl's account to the channel, 10 other girls from her peer group had fallen prey to the drug mafia. The party reacted sharply to the story. The fact that Asianet had interviewed the real victim a few months ago, and then recreated the story using an employee’s minor child ‘acting’ as the victim, drew ire. 

On March 2, 2023, dozens of SFI activists once again gathered outside Asianet’s Kochi office and picketed it for hours condemning the channel for unethical journalism. Just one day after the protests, the Kozhikode police registered a case against three Asianet journalists under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the IPC.

Sindhu Soorya Kumar, Noufal Bin Yousuf and Shahjahan Kaliyath were booked for airing the news report involving the minor. While the government justified this action, the Kerala HC gave them pre-arrest bail saying that “in a democratic country like India, which gives liberty to the fourth estate, which is the press and media, media personnel cannot be put in jail alleging criminal offences”.

In another case in June 2023, Akhila Nandakumar, the chief reporter of Asianet News Kochi, was named in an FIR because of a story she did on SFI leader PM Arsho, an MA archaeology student at Maharaja’s College Ernakulam. Akhila went live with a Kerala Students’ Union leader on an unrelated story, and during the course of the live show, the KSU leader accused Arsho of having passed all his exams without actually appearing for them.

In his defence, Arsho said that the confusion was because of an oversight and not deliberate fraud. He said that he was not present in Ernakulam during that period and, therefore, did not participate in any of the examinations. As if on cue, the college authorities backed his argument and attributed the discrepancy to a technical glitch at the National Informatics Centre.

Cleared of all wrongdoing by the college, an emboldened Arsho turned his ire on the channel. 

On June 8, he approached the then state police chief Anil Kant and filed a case against Maharaja’s principal VS Joy, archaeology department head Dr Vinod Kumar, KSU state president Aloysious Xavier, KSU Maharaja’s unit president Fazil and Akhila – accusing them of conspiracy and defamation. The case against Akhila made the media furious with several associations marking their protest. By September, the police filed an affidavit in the high court saying there was no evidence against her and she was no longer arrayed as an accused in the case.

Many senior journalists view these cases as instances of personal targeting and bullying by the government, a trend that has alarmed the fraternity. MG Radhakrishnan, a veteran journalist and former Editor of Asianet News, highlighted the unprecedented nature of these personal attacks.

“Even in history, no Kerala government has targeted journalists personally like this,” he said. “This battle has intensified in the last one and a half years.”

Journalist Shahina KK, a recipient of the International Press Freedom award, said there are media organisations that are targeting the government and doing baseless stories. “It's like the media is taking part in politics. Such stories meant to target the government are being carried by the media, which is a kind of a political activism. It's still not a reason or ground for the government to use the police to take revenge on the media. There is no issue if they take a case against fake news. The government or the police or whoever are the affected parties, can take the legal course, but they cannot just act arbitrarily,” she pointed out.

The daggers-drawn equation between the media and communists in Kerala is the result of a chain reaction of conflagrations over who said what. The timeline and origins of the present phase of conflict is lost in the hours of prime time footage it has generated.

Radhakrishnan attributed the increase in anti-government reporting to these instances of personal targeting, which have fueled a contentious atmosphere. He said the one-sided nature of Vinu John's discussions on Asianet was not all his doing. It was also because of the absence of a Left voice, as CPIM had boycotted his show for months. 

He added, “If I was the anchor, either I will try to bring a Left voice, or I, as an anchor, will take up that role.”

The CPIM’s protests against John escalated to the point of reaching his house and office, illustrating the intensity of personal vendettas. 

In June 2023, the police issued notices to Asianet anchor Abgeoth Varghese and reporter PR Praveena over a report on a speech by Congress leader Mullappally Ramachandran. Malayala Manorama journalist Jayachandran Elankath was served a notice by the Crime Branch over a report on improper appointments in Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd, a public sector company.

While instances of the police and the party workers clashing with Asianet News are not extraordinary in nature, the fact remains that the police in Kerala, with active support from the CPIM, have targeted other media houses too and continue to do so. Unlike Asianet, these outlets have no connection to the BJP.

In May 2023, phones of Mathrubhumi reporters were seized for capturing visuals of an accused in a train arson which left three people dead. 

Journalist Rejaz M Sheeba Sydeek was booked in November 2023 for a story he published in Maktoob Media citing allegations of anti-Muslim bias by the police while investigating the Kalamassery blasts at a Jehovah’s Witness church. Within hours of the blast, the police had detained two Muslim youths, formerly associated with SIMI, but without any leads. It later turned out that a disgruntled member of the church was behind the attack. 

A month later, in December 2023, journalist Rejaz and his friend Haneen staged a protest outside the venue of the CM’s public contact programme saying there was no press freedom in Kerala. Far from defending themselves through an intellectual debate, the communist cadres gathered for the CM’s event led a mob attack on Rejaz and Haneen.

Several cases have also been filed against Shajan Skariah, the founder and editor of Malayalam online news portal, Marunadan Malayali. He was arrested in August 2023 in one case and rearrested just as he left the station on bail. Shajan was accused of defaming a legislator, of creating communal disharmony and faking bills. 

Though Shajan and his outlet have done questionable stories, many that can be tagged as misinformation, the Kerala police were unable to build a solid case against him. Instead they tried implicating him in flimsy cases. This highhandedness brought embarrassment to the government as the court called out police behaviour as an abuse of the law. 

In other instances, the state police acted without applying any thought and with a clear intent to settle scores. Journalist R Sunil Raveendran who writes on tribal land alienation in Attappadi, was booked by the Agali police and was slapped with section 120 of the Kerala Police Act for causing public nuisance and breaching law and order in September 2023. Sunil, who works with Madhyamam newspaper, told TNM that the police found his reporting a nuisance as they too benefited from land scams.

Shahina KK said the government’s actions are unwarranted, including in Vineetha’s case. “There is tension between the ruling party and media always, that is not just with CPIM. When the UDF is in power they have tension with the media. The point is that whoever is in power, they use that power to silence the media.”

She said that like Vineetha, all journalists get information about events that are going to happen, including protests. “It is very normal for a political party or group organising the protest to pass on the information to a journalist in advance. Even when CPIM was in the opposition, they were doing the same. Therefore, raising an allegation that a journalist is part of a conspiracy only because she made calls to the protesters is rubbish.”

As personal targeting intensifies on both ends, the battleground between the government and the media in Kerala becomes increasingly fraught with legal challenges and ideological clashes.

But on the other side, journalists and people who sympathise with the CPIM say that anything against the government is being published enthusiastically and without any scrutiny.

For instance, during the floods in 2019, a CPIM worker named Omanakuttan was targeted  by the media for allegedly extorting money from poor refugees at a relief camp in Cherthala of Alappuzha district. The CPIM suspended him and a police case was filed.

A few hours after the party suspension and police action, Manorama News interviewed Omanakuttan and others in the camp who clarified that he had only been collecting money (Rs 70) to pay off the auto-rickshaw in which he'd brought rice from the civil supplies for the people staying there. The channels later ran an apology.

In the last week of September 2023, channels aired multiple interviews of Haridasan Kummali, a native of Malappuram, claiming that he had paid a bribe to Akhil Mathew, a personal staff member of Kerala health minister Veena George, to get a post in the AYUSH department. Later, Mathew provided visuals that proved that he was not present in Thiruvananthapuram at the time and date mentioned by Haridasan. The police found it was a fake complaint.

Another major media campaign quoted by CPIM sympathisers is how channels ran primetime debates and a series of stories based on allegations of G Sakthidharan, former editorial member of the CPIM’s mouthpiece Deshabhimani in June this year.

He made several Facebook posts alleging that in the early 2000s, a senior leader of the party, clearly implying Pinarayi Vijayan, had got a bribe of more that Rs 2 crore in cash. He alleged that he was made to count the money which was taken to the leader’s house in an Innova car wrapped in a palm reed mat.

“There were primetime discussions on this without even checking whether the Innova car was launched in the market at the time. Also then Sakthidharan was with VS Achuthanandan faction which was in an open fight with Pinarayi’s faction. How can Pinarayi Vijayan give the money to Sakthidharan to count? There were a lot of loopholes in the allegations, Sakthidharan did not clarify that and the media did not bother to check before launching a campaign,” said a senior journalist who sought anonymity.

Boycotting media

CPIM leaders and sympathisers in the state have levelled serious allegations against prominent media groups such as Asianet, Manorama and Mathrubhumi, claiming a blatant bias against the party and the government. They contend that these media outlets engage in explicit propaganda by consistently framing stories against the government.

Notably, leaders like CPIM’s M Swaraj have been outspoken about what they perceive as a pervasive bias, leading many CPIM voices to boycott participation in TV debates on Asianet News.

Speaking to TNM, Swaraj, who anchors a programme critical of media called Thurannu kattappedunna sathyanantharam, meaning “post-truth unveiled”, on social media, invoked Noam Chomsky’s theory of propaganda to explain the behaviour of the mainstream media. 

This theory says that filters such as media ownership contribute to biases in corporate mass media. Swaraj emphasised the historical evolution of print media, which initially aligned with ideologies associated with social change, reformation, or independence struggles. But he contended that over time, the media became increasingly corporatised, creating a misalignment with the communist ideology.

“Communism is fundamentally at odds with the corporate sector,” Swaraj explained. “This ideological difference forms the crux of the matter. Corporate policies are opposed only by the left here, and this conflict underlies the broader issue.”

Highlighting the anti-communist stance of certain corporate media entities, Swaraj brought up an intriguing urban legend linked to Malayala Manorama, a media outlet with historical significance. He alleged that in a 1953 editorial, the then editor KM Cherian asserted that KC Mammen Mappilai, Manorama’s founder, had on his deathbed issued a warning against communism.

The anti-communist policy of Manorama, Swaraj argued, was neither concealed nor denied by the management, adding another layer to the complex relationship between media, ideology, and the historical underpinnings of Kerala's political landscape.

In Kerala, CPIM mouthpiece Deshabhimani has a circulation of more than six lakh and is in the 17th position nationally as per recent Audit Bureau of Circulation figures. In Kannur and Kottayam districts, it is the second-most read newspaper surpassing Mathrubhumi daily, which is placed second in all other districts after Malayala Manorama. The Kairali TV network, which has four sister channels including Kairali News launched in 2000, is also backed by the CPIM. The party also commands a huge social media presence from local, branch and area committees to the state-level and numerous dedicated pages to spread their point of view.

M Swaraj’s talk on CPIM’s social media channels.

The path of enmity

The roots of the present strife go deep into Kerala's history, right back to the Liberation struggle of 1959. It was a struggle that unfolded against the first communist government of Kerala, led by the iconic EMS. Communists contend that Vimochanasamaram was a movement orchestrated by the Congress, religious groups, and certain sections of the media, aiming to dismantle the government. Their claim is rooted in the alleged opposition to two pivotal bills – the education bill and land reforms – introduced by the first communist government.

Even progressive groups that have since become disillusioned with the CPIM agree that the tensions of the 1950s were less a popular uprising and more of a backlash by the old guard against a people's uprising. Powerful socio-religious groups such as the Nair Service Society, Muslim League, the Catholic Church and other influential Keralites rallied against the progressive legislation, sparking unrest. The ensuing chaos was used as an excuse for the dismissal of the government in 1959 by then President of India, Rajendra Prasad, invoking Article 356 of the Constitution. Many critics argue that this move was both unconstitutional and a misuse of the article by the Congress party under Jawaharlal Nehru.

Yet, in the opposition’s counter-narrative, the Vimochanasamaram was an uprising against the wrongdoings of the government and the immediate cause was the police shootings in places like Angamaly, where seven people were killed and Vizhinjam, where the death of a pregnant woman named Glory became a rallying cry against perceived injustices.

During this period, Malayala Manorama and Deepika newspapers, primarily aligned with Christian groups, opposed the education bill, viewing it as a threat to their interests. CPIM leader and former state finance minister TM Thomas Isaac’s book on Vimochana Samaram, titled Vimochana Samarathinte Kanapurangal, highlights Manorama and Deepika’s editorial stance, with accusations that they actively called for rebellion against the government.

MG Radhakrishnan offered a nuanced perspective on the media’s role during Vimochana Samaram. He said the media, as a creation of the middle class, mirrored the prevailing sentiments of the bourgeois, which was largely against the government.

“There was a shift post-Vimochana Samaram,” he said. “In the 1980s, media houses in Kerala abandoned any declared policy against a particular political party, opting for independence in their reporting.”

The 1990s marked a new chapter in the media-CPIM saga. Factional differences within the CPIM came to light, and media coverage pivoted from the Congress to the dramatic and secretive groupism within the CPIM. Until the 90s, the conflicts between A and I groups of the Congress dominated news headlines.

“I recall my then editor, Prabhu Chawla, advising me to cease sending reports on Congress factional differences, deeming it saturated and uninteresting to readers,” said Radhakrishnan. “However, a significant shift occurred in the early 1990s when factional issues within the CPIM began to surface. This presented a distinctive scenario for the media, not just due to its novelty but also because the party tried to keep it in secrecy, in stark contrast to the Congress. This element of mystery heightened curiosity, leading every media outlet to delve into it. The coverage of groupism, if somewhat amplified in the 1990s, was particularly focussed on the CPIM, as their internal divisions were not only dramatic but also shrouded in secrecy. It made for a captivating narrative.” 

The rift between Pinarayi Vijayan and VS Achuthanandan – marked by their indirect attacks on each other, along with the murder of CPIM rebel leader TP Chandrasekharan in May 2012 by CPIM cadre – ignited a feeding frenzy in the media. The intensity of these issues heightened the friction, made worse by the fact that CPIM leaders were notably less media-friendly compared to their counterparts in the Congress.

A telling contrast unfolded in public interactions: while Oommen Chandy's press meets exuded a calm demeanour, surrounded by a congenial media, Pinarayi Vijayan, known for his toughness and unapproachable stance, publicly rebuked mediapersons asking them to get out (“kadakku purath”). This difference in leadership styles further accentuated the strained relationship between the CPIM and the media.

Many journalists complain about the pervasive enmity felt by reporters when visiting the AKG Center. This animosity, rooted in ideological differences, has persisted since the early days, exemplifying the CPIM’s historical reluctance to embrace the media. Conversely, Radhakrishnan noted the Congress’s ideological disposition, considering the media a vital element of democracy, regardless of the practical implementation. This ideological contrast has continued to shape the intricate dynamics between political parties and the media landscape in Kerala.

From Vimochanasamaram to the present, a significant section of the media and the CPIM have always been embroiled in a battle.

Shahina said Pinarayi has grounds to hold a grudge against the media as he was targeted by a section. 

“I have a different take on the history of friction between the media and Pinarayi Vijayan, I believe that Pinarayi Vijayan was unnecessarily targeted. There are many examples of journalists who targeted him baselessly. Media always had a fixation with Pinarayi Vijayan, maybe because he is not very friendly. It should not be a base for any journalist to do a story against him or any politician,” she said.

Independent media researcher Damordar Prasad recounted the distrust between the CPIM and certain media houses with a quote by EMS Namboodiripad. “Once EMS had said that Manorama wrote something good about him, then he would doubt himself.”

After an FIR was filed against Akhila Nandakumar, Damodar Prasad wrote in The Indian Express that though the CPIM as a party has every right to contest how the media covers its government, it crosses a line when the police are weaponised against critics. He compared the Modi government at the centre and Pinarayi’s state government and said, “Both the centre and Kerala governments seem uncomfortable with liberal ideas such as press freedom, constitutional rights, and a robust opposition.”

Damodar Prasad told TNM that he doesn’t consider the recent friction between the media and CPIM as something related to the past. 

“This is an extension of what happened after Pinarayi Vijayan took charge as party secretary,” he said. Vijayan took over as the state secretary after the sudden demise of Chadayan Govindan in 1998. “He strongly believed that a media syndicate planted stories against him. Even then he had personally attacked media persons, I remember him calling out then editor of Mathrubhumi. He said, ‘Edo Gopalakrishna, Kathi kandal Bayapedunnavaralla njangal. (Hey Gopalakrishna, we won’t be scared at the sight of knives).’ He was reacting to an editorial in Mathrubhumi which said, ‘Pinarayi and late CPIM leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan carry knives and bombs with them.’”

He added that the media’s role is to be critical of the government, while praising the government can be done by their PR groups. “There is nothing wrong with the media bringing critical stories. That is how a democracy should work,” he said.

Pinarayi Vijayan and the ‘media syndicate’ barb

The recent conflict between the CPIM and the media has reached new heights since 2016, with the LDF assuming power with Pinarayi Vijayan who coined the term “media syndicate”, during the time of infighting between VS Achuthanandan and him in the party, taking over as the state’s chief minister.

The initial challenge stemmed from Pinarayi Vijayan’s unfriendly manner, and tensions further escalated with the unfolding gold smuggling scandal and its alleged ties to the chief minister’s office. The media extensively covered personal attacks on the CM and propagated numerous conspiracy theories, subjecting all government projects to intense scrutiny.

Pinarayi Vijayan, no stranger to media criticism, has consistently confronted the press, often taking jabs at their coverage. The gold smuggling scandal in 2020, which implicated the chief minister’s office, saw widespread media attention. Yet, despite the allegations, the CPIM secured a historic victory in 2021, claiming 99 seats out of 140 in the state. 

Post-election, Vijayan held a press meet on May 2, 2021, where he accused right-wing media of distorting developmental activities and fabricating stories to undermine the LDF. In a scathing rebuke lasting more than 30 minutes, Vijayan condemned media conglomerates for attempting to influence politics. 

“Don't think that Kerala and its people are in your hands; they have the ability to think,” he said, arguing for constructive criticism but accusing certain media outlets of peddling falsehoods and launching personal attacks.

He reminded them of the term “media syndicate” he had coined in the 2000s when he was the party secretary. “You media know nothing about our party,” he said, alleging that some of the journalists in credible news media have joined to form an informal group to support VS and isolate Pinarayi. In 2011, a WikiLeaks cable quoted the US consulate in Chennai discussing Pinarayi’s allegations and presenting the perspectives of certain journalists on the matter.

Playing role of opposition, says media

Some mediapersons have defended the stance taken by them, asserting that questioning the state government is an inherent aspect of their journalistic responsibility.

MG Radhakrishnan offered a critique of the CPIM, pointing out their selective memory, and highlighting how the media played a similar watchdog role during the Congress-led UDF government, particularly amid the unravelling of the solar scam. 

“I had assumed the role of Asianet’s editor in 2014, and was targeted based on my family’s CPIM background which led to allegations of bias against the UDF government,” he said. “Now if the CPIM boycotts Vinu V John’s discussion, then it was the Congress. He still has cases against him given by Congress leaders.”

He underscored that the media’s shift towards aggressive journalism is a response to intense competition pressures. Addressing the CPIM’s query about why the media doesn't adopt a similar confrontational approach with the union government, Radhakrishnan pointed towards proximity, a term used to describe news events that occur close to the location of the reporter.

“In journalism, proximity is a pivotal factor. Questioning the affairs of the state government proves more captivating for viewers than dissecting the workings of the central government. People inherently exhibit a heightened interest in the occurrences within their immediate surroundings; hence, the majority of news stories naturally gravitate towards the state government," he said.

Kerala media following national trends?

M Swaraj alleged that the Kerala media has aligned with the right, akin to national media. He highlighted the ownership connection, citing BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s stake in Asianet News. Swaraj said the media in Kerala is mirroring the paradigm shift in national media. 

“Union minister Anurag Thakur held a meeting with selected media outlets in July 2022, excluding those affiliated with the CPIM,” he said. “ This exclusionary practice reveals a convergence between Kerala media and the national media's right-leaning trajectory.”

The issue was raised by MP John Brittas during a Parliament session in August 2022. Thakur apologised to the MP for not meeting him in Kerala but did not reply to the question of why some media outlets were excluded.

In 2020, during Donald Trump’s visit to India, “right-sympathising media persons” were invited to a state banquet hosted by President Ram Nath Kovind. Swaraj said Jayant Mammen Mathew, executive editor and director of Malayala Manorama, had been one of the invitees.

“The prime minister inaugurated Manorama’s conclave,” he said. “These all show their affiliations.”

But Radhakrishnan refuted Swaraj’s accusations that the state media is aligning with the national media influenced by the Sangh Parivar. He said that during his tenure as editor, Rajeev Chandrasekhar never tried to interfere in editorial activities. “He backed us fully even when BJP had declared a war against Asianet News.”

He added, “There is indeed an ideological shift across society, witnessing a transition of many from a secular standpoint to leaning towards the right. This paradigm shift in values may have subtly influenced journalists as well. However, it’s essential to note that, in the Kerala context, there hasn’t been a significant parallel shift comparable to the national scenario. Criticism of the BJP is widespread across all media outlets in the state. Nonetheless, the central government doesn't face the same level of scrutiny as the state government, primarily due to proximity. Contrary to claims, I do not observe a pro-BJP trend prevailing in Kerala media.”

Shahina said the CPIM as a party has every right to confront the media. “They are doing it also in social media and other platforms where CPIM activists do media criticism on a daily basis,” she said. “That is healthy but the government should not cross the line by imposing cases upon journalists for doing their jobs. Not only is it unwarranted, it also makes people draw a parallel with what is happening outside Kerala.”

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.

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