The News Minute speaks to NDTV’s Sam Daniel, and senior journalists Induja Ragunathan and Kavitha Muralidharan on their experience with Jayalalithaa.

Of Lathicharge assault and intimidation Reporters diary from Jayalalithaas times
news Jayalalithaa Friday, December 09, 2016 - 18:00

Journalists in Tamil Nadu never had an easy relationship with late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who always kept the media at a distance. Whether as opposition leader or as CM, Jayalalithaa’s interactions with the press were few and far between.

Many journalists may remember her as the iron lady who resorted to defamation cases to instill fear and suppress criticism against her government. The News Minute speaks to three Tamil Nadu journalists on their experience with Jayalalithaa.   

Sam Daniel, Chennai Bureau Chief, NDTV: It was June 29, 2014, a day after a 11-storey under-construction building had collapsed at Moulivakkam in Chennai. 11 people had been killed and 20 had been rescued until that evening. Many more were feared to be trapped under the debris. But suddenly, we noticed rescue work coming to a halt. 

Officials were instead cleaning up the area, putting chlorine on the sides of the road. When I asked multiple sources why work had come to a standstill, they said it was because Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was arriving at the spot. 

Image courtesy: Facebook/Sam Daniel

When the CM arrived three hours later, she visited the collapsed building, speaking to officials and assessing the rescue operations. Following this, Jayalalithaa briefed the media on the rescue operations being carried out and the circumstances that led to the collapse of the building. 

I had the opportunity to ask her the first question. “Ma’am in the last few hours, rescue work has come to an end. Do you think officials could have avoided this?” I asked. Jayalalithaa shot back, “These are mischievous questions, these are politically motivated questions and I am not prepared to answer these questions. If you think rescue work is over, I invite you to stay here and watch the rescue operations until they are over.”  With that, she ended the press briefing and walked away. 

Little did I know at the time that that would be the last question any reporter would ask her. While many senior NDRF officials later came up to me that day and said it was right on my part to question the CM, Jayalalithaa did not meet the press or interact with reporters after that. My intention to pose the question was simply to inform her that rescue work had been stopped in her name and someone had to be held accountable. 

Induja Ragunathan, senior journalist: I don’t know if it is a boon or bane to work in TV news channels, as even as a cub reporter you can get a chance to meet and interview eminent personalities which one cannot dream about meeting in your real life. 

When I joined Sun TV, as a fresher I was sent around the city to cover all sorts of protests, small press meets, events, etc. But being both curious and ambitious, I wanted to cover bigger news stories and was lucky enough to be given the opportunity. It was 2000, and the DMK was in power, making it easy for Sun TV, which belongs to the Maran family, to move around the state. We were almost treated like royalty wherever we went. 

But a year later, power changed hands and Jayalalithaa returned as Chief Minister winning the state elections with a handsome majority. As a cub reporter with Sun TV, considered the rival’s channel, it became a difficult task for me and for all my colleagues to report from any of AIADMK or Jayalalithaa’s news events. Having encountered angry AIADMK cadre, who routinely abused us during coverage, we as reporters of Sun TV were forced to remove the channel’s logo and hold a naked mic whenever we went to the AIADMK party office or to Jayalalithaa’s residence.  

Shortly after AIADMK came to power, in June 2001 DMK chief Karunanidhi was arrested in the wee hours of the morning. Condemning the state government and the police, DMK workers took out a massive protest on Marina beach. Sun TV deputed almost all of its reporters across various locations to cover the protest march. I was at Nandanam where protesters began pelting stones at the police.  It was then that we got information from our sources that there was going to be violence between the AIADMK and DMK cadres near the Marina Beach, where the public meeting was scheduled. 

Several of my colleagues and friends at other TV channels, many of them women journalists were deputed to cover the public meeting. After completing my Nandanam shoot, I moved to Gandhi statue.  The situation had gotten out of hand with clashes between DMK and AIADMK workers on Marina beach. But things got ugly when the police gave protection to the AIADMK cadre, who were attacking DMK workers and journalists covering the violence.  

The angry mob chased journalists, who were filming the clashes in the DGP office. But to the surprise of many media personnel, instead of being offered protection, policemen demanded the footage, even smashing the cameras to bits.

Tear gas was also fired to prevent journalists from shooting the incident. I had been taking sound bites of cadre, who were bleeding, when the mob spotting our vehicle rushed at us, pelting stones at our car. One group even attempted to overturn our vehicle. Another colleague, who was in the car next to mine was hit on the head and started to bleed. 

Minutes later I received a call from a woman journalist, who was at the DGP office along with a few others. She was crying inconsolably, she had been assaulted and manhandled when the mob took her tapes.   

After the nightmare, some journalists filed a complaint on the assault by unidentified policemen. There were quite a few women journalists, who were shaken the incident and the reporter who was assaulted that day was forced to quit the profession by her family and return to her hometown. A fact-finding committee was formed by the Press Council of India and we deposed before it. But Jayalalithaa, as far as I remember, did not speak out against the against the attacks.

In another occasion, police arrested G Suresh, a reporter and cameraman for Sun TV in Villupuram, who had gone to a government-owned rice storage facility to report on a grain scandal. His report had embarrassed the Tamil Nadu government and the police arrested him, charging him for trespassing and physical intimidation. 

On June 28, a group of about 50 journalists assembled outside the Chief Minister’s office Jayalalitha to present a petition demanding Suresh’s release, but she refused to accept it. Police then ordered the journalists to disperse and lathi-charged many in an effort to break up the demonstration.

The next day, a group of 150 journalists marched towards the state Secretariat to protest Suresh's arrest and the roughing up of media persons the previous day. Journalists even attempted to stop her convoy near the Secretariat. Police dressed in riot gear and armed with tear gas and water pistols halted the demonstration and detained all the journalists at Vepery Police Station for about seven hours. They agreed to be released only after receiving confirmation that Suresh had been released on bail.

The same afternoon, Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa visited the Raj Bhavan for a cabinet reshuffle. She addressed the press on the cabinet reshuffle but was in no mood to take extra questions. But I asked her about the journalists’ protest and their subsequent detention. To my surprise, she reacted saying, “Is it so?” After a pause, Jayalalithaa said she will look into the matter and take necessary action. 

During her regime, there were several times I was stopped by the police from doing my job. Jayalalithaa met the press only when she wanted to and not when journalists wanted a reaction on a burning issue. I can’t count how many times my hands have been held tightly by her security personnel, who pushed down my mic every time I held it out towards her. Unfortunately, nothing changed over the years, and journalists became used to receiving such treatment, however, continuing to carry out our work despite the odds. 

Kavitha Muralidharan, senior journalist: I started working in 1998, and in 2001 I got a real taste of what my seniors meant when they called Jayalalithaa ruthlessness. Sometime in June, we got to know that the police had arrested Sun TV's villupuram reporter Suresh for accompanying DMK leader Ponmudi to State civil supplies Godown. This enraged media persons across the State and in Chennai we attempted to take out a procession in front of the secretariat on June 29 in an attempt to meet the CM and present a memorandum to withdraw the case against Suresh.

I remember on the day some of us even tried to waylay the convoy, subsequently over 150 journalists including veterans like Maalan, A S Paneerselvan and RMT Sampandham were arrested and lodged in Vepery station. We had many other veterans visiting Vepery to express solidarity. 

I was working with India Today Tamil then. On August 12, the DMK was taking out a rally protesting the highhandedness of the AIADMK government (Karunanidhi was arrested June 30). I did not attend the rally, but Jayashree who was with Aajtak then came back to office and gave an account. I remember being shocked seeing Jayashree. She was in tears. I was worried if she was assaulted but she told me she was upset that the camera was broken into pieces. The police did that intentionally.

The love-hate relationship between media and Jayalalalitha would continue in different forms including defamation cases and scrapping of government ads.

I remember how in her earliest press meets she would not even entertain questions from people she resented. At one of the press conferences, when a Sun TV reporter tried to ask something, she promptly snapped saying: I know where you are from, don't mess with me."