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Targeting mediapersons

Print edition : Jul 07, 2001 T+T-

The police action against mediapersons stems from Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's utter disregard for and intolerance of the media.

THE events in Tamil Nadu in the last week of June brought back memories of the Emergency, which was declared in the same month 26 years ago. The violation of human rights by the police while arresting former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, as brought out by a television channel, was shocking enough. It was followed by the arrest of 18,000 people, mostly belonging to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) that he heads. There was ruthless police attack on hundreds of Karunanidhi's supporters who had gathered near the Central Prison in Chennai and some other centres in the State.

A part of this unedifying spectacle was the unprecedented crackdown on the media. In several places, mediapersons covering the arrest and the events that followed it bore the brunt of police atrocities. In Madurai five journalists, who were covering Chennai Mayor and Karunanidhi's son M.K. Stalin's arrival at the Central Jail there, were injured in a police lathi-charge. Stalin had surrendered before a Judge in Chennai and was later taken to the Madurai prison. Some DMK activists, who had already been remanded there, were also injured in the police action.

The latest targeting of the media by the State police is reminiscent of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's earlier stint (1991-96), which was marked by intolerance and repression of the media. The police frustrated the efforts of a section of mediapersons to cover Karunanidhi's arrest by detaining them for an hour or so, and later let loose a reign of terror in the Anna Arivalayam complex, the DMK headquarters, which also houses Sun TV. Sun News managing editor, A.S. Panneerselvan, wrote to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee stating that the State police were intimidating Sun TV journalists and that the channel was the victim of "state-sponsored violence". He demanded that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) be deployed at the Sun TV premises. Kalanidhi Maran, son of Union Commerce Minister and Karunanidhi's nephew Murasoli Maran, is the Chairman and Managing Director of the channel.

When the police found that mere use of physical force would not be enough to bring the channel to its knees, it took upon itself the responsibility of keeping a watch on the telecast by satellite channels. Irked by the massive response to the detailed and effective coverage of the post-midnight drama at Karunanidhi's residence, Police Commissioner K. Muthukaruppan in the afternoon of June 30 served an intimidatory order on Sun TV. The order wanted Sun TV to desist from telecasting what he considered "objectionable material".

The order was issued under Section 19 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, which enables an authorised officer to direct and prohibit in public interest any cable operator "from transmitting or re-transmitting any particular programme if it is likely to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, linguistic or regional groups or castes or communities or which is likely to disturb the public tranquillity." Muthukaruppan said that while Karunanidhi resisted his arrest with the help of Murasoli Maran, Sun TV "deliberately twisted" this aspect to give the impression that the former Chief Minister was beaten, roughed up and dragged. He also objected to the programme in which viewers gave their reactions, over telephone to the DMK chief's arrest. "This," the order said, "has resulted in causing the disturbance to pubic tranquillity in some places."

Criticising the Police Commissioner for having "singled out Sun TV for punitive action", the channel pointed out in a press release that almost all Chennai-based channels were telecasting the same Sun TV footage on the arrest. It said that his questioning of the telecast of the opinions of the people smacked of "intolerance and utter disdain for the freedom of the press." "In a single stroke, the Commissioner of Police, whose duty it is to uphold the Constitution of India, has become a violator himself," Sun TV observed. It affirmed that the telecast was well within the ambit of Article 19 of the Constitution, which guaranteed the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.

In a subsequent press conference, Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley highlighted the democratic unacceptability of the State setting itself up as a censor of what the public should view.

Just a day before Karunanidhi's arrest, a large group of mediapersons in Chennai had to face the wrath of the police when they attempted to take out a protest march to the Secretariat. They were going to present a petition to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa demanding the release of Sun TV reporter G. Suresh who had been detained at Villupuram, 150 km from Chennai. Suresh was arrested on June 27 on a charge of "trespassing" into a godown of the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation (TNCSC).

There was a large police presence near the Government Guest House at Chepauk, from where the protest march was to start. The police told the mediapersons that permission had been denied for the procession and began to use force to push them back. Over 150 mediapersons, including Dinamani Editor Rm. T. Sambandam, Sun TV's Maalan and Panneerselvan, Chennai Press Club president Pon. Dhanasekaran and its secretary Sivakumar, were detained for about six hours at a police station. Later they were informed that Suresh had been granted bail, and were released. The mediapersons, however, reiterated that they wanted to present a petition to the Chief Minister for the withdrawal of the case against Suresh.

Pon. Dhanasekaran said: "For the first time in Chennai mediapersons courted arrest in such large numbers. The response was spontaneous. Eighteen women journalists were among those arrested. Our purpose was only to express solidarity with a fellow mediaperson and such others who are caught in the crossfire between the major political parties in the State in their pursuance of a politics of vendetta." Protest demonstrations were held in several district headquarters also.

The decision to take out the procession on June 29 followed the thwarting of an attempt by a group of journalists to present a memorandum to the Chief Minister at the Secretariat when she was receiving, as usual, petitions from the public. When mediapersons approached the Chief Minister's car near the gate, the police intervened again and manhandled them. The protesting journalists who were manhandled included women.

SURESH was arrested on June 27 on the charge that he had "trespassed" into the TNCSC godown at Villupuram along with former DMK Minister for Transport, K. Ponmudi. The ex-Minister was arrested on the night of June 26. Ponmudi, Suresh and five others, including two local DMK leaders, were charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

On June 26, Ponmudi took a party of mediapersons to the godown to inspect the foodgrain stocks in the wake of an allegation by two State Ministers, V. Subramanian (Adi Dravidar Welfare) and C.V. Shanmugam (Commercial Tax), a few days earlier about the quality of the rice stocks with the government. The Ministers had charged that about 2,500 tonnes of rotten rice procured by the previous government was stored in Villupuram district's nine godowns. Of this, 324 tonnes was in the Villupuram godown. Journalists who were part of the visiting team told Frontline that Ponmudi had taken due permission from a responsible local official in the presence of the journalists to enter the godown. When Suresh was arrested and a case filed against him there were protests from political leaders and mediapersons all over the State.

Eminent journalists, who included Thuglak Editor Cho. S. Ramaswami, Frontline Editor N. Ram, and Sun TV's Maalan and Panneerselvan condemned the arrest of Suresh, who they said was only discharging his duty as a journalist. It was unfair to single out the journalist of one particular television channel and subject him to harassment, they said. They were "dismayed" that serious charges, including attempts, to murder were foisted on him. Appealing to the government to drop the charges against him, the signatories said: "What is at stake is not just the question of freedom of expression but the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution."

The eminent journalists also said that it was "unfortunate" that journalists who sought a meeting with the Chief Minister in this regard were not granted an audience and were ill-treated by the police.

Condemning the arrest of Suresh and the police brutality on mediapersons, the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, said in a statement: "The media have an important role to play in not only informing people but also disseminating critical information. Threats of arrest and motivated criminal action against persons in the media are a direct threat to the democratic process."

Criticising the police action against mediapersons, Karunanidhi said that he would "stand up to protect the freedom of the press". State Bharatiya Janata Party president Dr. Kirubanidhi, former Union Minister P. Chidambaram and Dravidar Kazhagam general secretary K. Veeramani were among the other political leaders who took exception to Suresh's arrest and demanded his release.

CHIEF MINISTER Jayalalithaa said that the mediapersons were playing into the hands of Karunanidhi, who, she said, was aiming to create a confrontation between the journalists and her government. Karunanidhi, however, denied that he had instigated journalists to agitate against her.

Even in her long statement on Karunanidhi's arrest and the incidents that followed, the Chief Minister showed a tendency to see all critics of her government as "beholden to Karunanidhi" and as "a motivated section". Referring to the mediapersons' agitation, she said: "When mediapersons break the law and engage in illegal activities, the police have to do their duty."

Some senior journalists said they were not surprised at the way mediapersons were treated by the Jayalalithaa government. In their opinion, Jayalalithaa's policy of confrontation with journalists was born out of her intolerance of dissent and criticism, and it was only a continuation of her standoff against the media during her previous spell in power. That period had witnessed numerous incidents of harassment and state repression of the media. The contempt proceedings against K.P. Sunil and two others, the cases and police violence against Nakkeeran magazine, the goonda attack on the offices of Kumudam, and the assault on the Sun TV crew who covered the marriage of her now-disowned foster son V.N Sudhakaran, are only a few among them.