The popular Telugu news channel TV9 and another one called ABN were blacked out by cable operators in Telangana

Flix Friday, January 16, 2015 - 05:30
By Deepthy Menon The reportage of English news channels, especially NDTV on Muzaffarnagar riots and the aftermath angered Akhilesh Yadav’s SP government so much that he refused to engage with them, calling them biased. Later, the heated discussions on Times Now over lack of accountability among the legislators of the state, who went on a foreign junket soon after the riots resulted in the blacking out of the channel in Lucknow and other parts.  Recently, the popular Telugu news channel TV9 and another one called ABN were blacked out by cable operators in Telangana. Sources in the channel say that they have been accused of being pro-Andhra channels. It’s learnt that the furore began over a political satire that ran on TV9, which was a tad too distasteful and unflattering of the TRS – the party in power in the newly created state of Telangana. In no time, TV9 editorial was scrambling to put out an apology for unintended hurt caused to the TRS. But clearly by then, the ‘damage’ was done. The political satire had the TRS legislators discussing the shenanigans of TV9 and their pro-Andhra conspiracy to show them in poor light. So much so that topic came up for discussion in the Assembly and the Speaker was asked to initiate ‘strict action’ against these errant channels. Why was ABN blacked out by cable operators? The jury is rather divided on that, suffice to say that they were also seen as a pro-Andhra channel and therefore deemed unnecessary by powers that be in Telangana for their praja!  These incidents bring to fore a very disturbing trend – in a country, where our constitutional rights offer us a variety of choice – where to live, the religion to follow, the language to speak and so on - are the political classes trying to circumscribe the options available to choose from? Banning a news channel or revoking their licence to broadcast is not an easy proposition. So what’s the next best option? Muscle their way through cable operators and distribution networks and get them to toe the line. Paralyse media channels by affecting their crucial numbers in critical markets – thereby instilling fear in them of going against the political party in power. Anything that falls short of propaganda becomes playing into the opposition/rival’s plans to destabilise regional sentiments – a convenient excuse to control the messages carried by the messenger!  Journalists from Telangana confirm that the Chief Minister has hinted at working towards control of cable distribution networks along the lines of Tamil Nadu – which means political parties own and control massive cable distribution networks and also own their own channels. So only news and views favourable to their political stand will filter down to the public. Clearly dictating what the public can watch and need to avoid.  Look at the existing situation in the state - The bifurcation from the rest of Andhra Pradesh was not only acrimonious but resulted in sporadic bouts of violence. There is still a sense of unease and loss among people from Andhra living in Telangana over rhetoric that hints at treatment like second class citizens in areas, where they have been living for decades. With the blacking out of channels by labelling them as ‘Andhra channels’, the sense of discrimination and alienation only widens. Former colleagues I have worked with in Hyderabad (then the capital of Andhra Pradesh and now of Telangana) say that an unnecessary sense of ‘Us Versus Them’ is deliberately being fostered by the political classes. Isn’t it reminiscent of how Pakistani channels are not aired in India because they are from across the border and our films are not officially released across the border?  Nearly a decade ago, the Maran brothers of Tamil Nadu had gauged that the real control over airwaves lay in controlling the distribution of channels. Many national channels would refrain from airing ‘negative’ stories about the Marans. After securing a monopoly during the days of the DMK rule, they flipped the rules of the game during the time they were out of power by doling out free DTH kits to lure the audience accustomed to their bouquet of channels to stay loyal to them. This strategy paid huge dividends during the torrid days for the DMK, while they were bracing with the fallout of the 2G scam (DMK minister A Raja, the Marans and the patriarch M Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi were named in it). The SUN network and its news channels carried very little about the 2G Scam – in their world and that inhabited by their audience, there was no news of any wrong-doing, therefore no wrong done! Perhaps KCR senses a possibility of channelizing pro-Telangana sentiments into a media environment that brooks no opposition to anything remotely against TRS’ notion of what Telangana should hear.  Should a majority vote be the only weapon political parties need to ban, prohibit or censor media that they feel are not favourable to their narrow political vision? In a pluralistic democracy like India, a conducive environment that fosters co-existence of divergent voices is essential, without it being seen as a threat to majority interests. Warning bells need to ring about the threat to an already fragile ecosystem, where political parties with a mandate from the majority feel they have public backing to take autocratic positions on what the media can say, what it can report on and whether it needs to be penalised for going against the state.  In such an eventuality as has already happened with TV9 and ABN in Telangana, shouldn’t the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that hands out licences for operations to channels also look into what channels need to operate without fear of political coercion? Should political parties be allowed to control air waves and newsprint so that voices of dissent or criticism do not make its way into public discourse? Prakash Javadekar, the new minister of Information and Broadcasting at the Centre needs to perhaps take a more proactive look at the state of affairs of functioning of Indian media. The need for non-partisan, independent media is paramount in a country like India. Increased meddling of corporate houses investing in media houses to control the flow of information is now becoming a pattern that political parties appear keen to emulate too. After all, who would no love a media that laps up the stories they want fed to the public and conveniently turns a blind eye to the camouflaged rot in the system?  Having an official newspaper and TV channels is not a new trend for political parties. The Left in Kerala own newspapers and news channels as well. However, there is no clamping down on other voices that are critical of their political activities. The trend to clamp down on voices that are perceived to be critical of the ruling party and a threat to their political ambitions need to be nipped in the bud. There is no better time than now for the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to proactively look into these developments and show the commitment towards fostering a constructive and critical Fourth Estate. Strict guidelines that empower media organisations to function without fear or favour should be the first task tackled by Javdekar and team. If the final port of appeal remains the ruling party, then we can bid adieu to days of impartial journalism for good!  (Deepthy Menon is a burnt out TV journalist, with no political allegiance, left or right. Her current avatar as a mercenary writer and communication strategist is largely her way of funding her insatiable lust for travel and stories).
Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.