On Thursday, editors and journalists of media outlets in Tamil Nadu were sent a press release by the AIADMK, asking them to stop quoting persons who have not been designated as official spokespersons of the ruling party. “You must be knowing about AIADMK spokespersons appointed to speak authoritatively on behalf of the party. You must also be knowing that it is improper for others (apart from official spokespersons) to speak their views to the media on behalf of the party,” the letter stated. Thus, the party told media outlets, “not to invite or permit the views of anyone else who claims to be representing the party or reflecting the party’s name in any other way.” The party asked that such people not be identified as AIADMK members.
Disowning the interviews or news provided by such persons, the party also told media outlets, “We believe you would not compel us to take legal action regarding this.” The press release has been slammed as problematic by many in the media. Several Ministers— not designated as official spokespersons of the ruling party— continued to address press conferences throughout the day on Thursday. The ‘unofficial’ media gag also seemingly means AIADMK is threatening to sue media outlets that quote party sources.
Speaking to TNM, senior journalist S Karthigaichelvan says, “The party is saying only speak to official spokespersons. Usually a few people appear as party ‘supporter’ or ‘sympathiser’ and they are not officially deputed. They cannot be expected to toe the party line so that's valid. However, a gag order should only be issued to party members, not the media. They need to ask their party members not to speak out of turn as opposed to issuing a veiled threat to the media about legal consequences.”
He also points out that the ruling party had issued a communiqué on Wednesday restraining even official spokespersons from speaking to the media until further orders. “This has happened before too. The media is usually blamed by political parties for negative coverage after a poll debacle. This is not a good practice. The media ensures space for both the ruling party and the opposition. It can be blamed only if it is one-sided, not if the party fails to utilise the space, ” he adds.
Soon after the top leadership of the AIADMK convened for a crucial meeting in Chennai on Wednesday, Chief Minister and Deputy Coordinator of the party Edappadi Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister and Party Coordinator O Panneerselvam asked party spokespersons not to speak to the media or post messages in their social media accounts about the party till the high command makes an announcement, even warning them of disciplinary action. However, even as MLAs and Ministers made their way out of party headquarters, a number of them spoke to the media, taking questions on factionalism within the party.
Senior journalist Lakshmi Subramaniam points out that when former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was around, she would prefer to approach the court if she found the content defamatory. "Whereas Jayalalithaa was able to control the party, the present AIADMK is threatening the media not to write against them. It is the right of the media to write. That's freedom of the press,” she says.
While the press release created a stir among media persons, Bhagwan Singh, Executive Editor of the Deccan Chronicle, says that none of the party members are likely to follow orders not to speak to the media, rendering this order pointless. “We have handled such situations even during Jayalalithaa’s time. There was no official diktat but she would not appreciate anyone else speaking on behalf of the party. Since every Minister and district secretary of the party is a power centre now, nobody appears accountable to the high command.” He also points out Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar, who is not an official spokesperson of the party, has become a ‘darling of the media’ in the years following Jayalalithaa’s demise. The Minister gives a minimum of one press conference a day, addressing a host of issues on behalf of the party and government. “Media can still quote unnamed sources,” says Bhagwan Singh.