Contempt for media

Print edition : January 06, 2017

Chennai, November 12, 2003: N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu with CPI(M) leader N. Sankariah and DMK chief M. Karunanidhi at the human chain organised by opposition parties to protest against the Jayalalithaa government's attempts to muzzle the media. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister did not hesitate to make public her intolerance of the media and opposition criticism, and she did this through a slew of defamation cases against them.

EVERY time the All India Anna Dravida Munentra Kazhagam was in power in Tamil Nadu, while a dominant section of the media sang praises of the government, mediapersons highlighting the grievances of the people, and of course those in the opposition, had one chore to perform: visit courts regularly to handle defamation cases filed by the State government.

If the first government headed by Jayalalithaa (1991-96) was intolerant, the second (2001-06) was viciously vindictive and the third (2011 – 2016) was equally thin skinned when it came to criticism. All the main leaders of the State, ranging from the patriarch of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam M. Karunanidhi, to his son M.K. Stalin, to the political maverick Subramanian Swamy, have fought defamation battles in court. One woman politician was even arrested. Subramanian Swamy was even treated to a “show” by a section of AIADMK women when he once reached the Madras High Court. To intimidate or smother criticism, the government left no stone unturned.

To drive home a point, the nonagenarian Karunanidhi even went to a local court instead of filing a petition seeking waiver from the court appearance. Stalin travels to Dindigul, more than 400 km from Chennai in the south central direction, once every six months to be present in the hearing of a case filed against him by the government. Subramanian Swamy had a few cases filed against him for some of his tweets, while leaders such as Vijayakanth of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) had cases slapped on them for what can at best be termed mildly provocative but tasteless speeches. According to a submission in the Supreme Court, between 2011 and 2016 the Tamil Nadu government filed 213 defamation cases against its political opponents, the media for “derogatory statements” against Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. Of them, 55 were against the media and 85 were against politicians. Between 2001 and 2006, the AIADMK government had filed 122 cases. Not that the DMK government did not file any cases. In fact, it filed around 40 cases when it was in power from 2006 to2011.

Not one of these cases has reached conclusion. For instance, as soon as the DMK government came to power in 2006, it withdrew all the cases filed by the earlier government. One of these cases was against me (when I was a Special Correspondent with The Hindu) and related to a report that asserted that the then Chennai Corporation Commissioner was summoned to Hyderabad (where Jayalalithaa was resting at her farm house) to discuss the filing of cases against Karunanidhi and Stalin in the construction of mini-flyovers in Chennai. In connection with this case I went to the Madras High Court in early 2003, waited for a few hours for my case to be called, put my hand up when the judge called out my name and acknowledged my presence when he asked if I was present in court, and then I left. The case never came up again, and was among those withdrawn after the DMK came to power in 2006.

But the worst of all excesses in the recent past happened in 2003. On April 25 that year, The Hindu published an editorial “Rising Intolerance” criticising Jayalalithaa's style of functioning. The Speaker referred this to the Privileges Committee of the Legislative Assembly. On November 7, at 5:20 p.m. the Assembly witnessed the dramatic closing of its gates barring all access to it as it passed a resolution sentencing five senior journalists of The Hindu to 15 days’ imprisonment. Soon after, the police raided the office of The Hindu in Chennai in a bid to arrest the journalists. On November 8, The Hindu moved the Supreme Court for a stay, and on November 10, the court granted the stay order. At that point there were 16 criminal defamation cases and one civil suit filed against The Hindu.

As part of the sentence, The Hindu’s reporters were denied passes to cover Assembly proceedings for 15 working days. But this ruling was forgotten soon enough and The Hindu’s reporters went back to cover the Assembly proceedings held later.

Appalled by the large number defamation cases filed in Tamil Nadu, in August 2016 the Supreme Court, after looking into the merits of some of the cases, said defamation cases should not be used as a political counter weapon against critics of governments. A Bench, comprising Justices Dipak Misra and R.F. Nariman, also stayed the non-bailable warrants issued against Vijayakanth and his wife Premlata in one such case.

The courts are not the only ways to create a “chilling effect” that the judges referred to. It included mild warning and a talking to in the case of the print media and denial of carrier rights for news television channels.

Government advertisements were always held up as collateral by successive governments across India. But Tamil Nadu’s model of Arasu cable, a TV distribution platform, was set up by the DMK government in 2006 after the Marans, who own Sun Network and were heavily into distribution, fell out of favour with the ruling family. In this model, the government is the MSO (multisystem operator), and it is a sure-shot way to control news television. Tamil news channels have often been forced to toe the government line for fear of Arasu Cable TV dumping their feed altogether.

In fact, this has become such a popular model that a few neighbouring States have come to Tamil Nadu to study it. One senior functionary attached to a Chief Minister told me in a casual conversation recently that he had in fact recommended the Arasu model to be implemented in his State.

R.K. Radhakrishnan

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