TN govt sues TOI and Dinamalar over flood coverage: Will the govt ever stop?

This comes weeks after SC told TN govt to stop taking criticism of governance as a personal insult.
TN govt sues TOI and Dinamalar over flood coverage: Will the govt ever stop?
TN govt sues TOI and Dinamalar over flood coverage: Will the govt ever stop?
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One hundred and twenty, and counting, and that’s just from Chennai city. That’s the number of defamation cases the Jayalalithaa government has now filed against media houses, political opponents and even activists.

The latest to bear the brunt of government’s fury is Times of India and Dinamalar.

On Monday morning, Chennai City Public Prosecutor ML Jagan’s office filed complaints of criminal defamation against the Times of India and another against Dinamalar newspaper.

On December 9, TOI reported that the flood that had ravaged Chennai was not a natural disaster, but one caused by bureaucratic hassle. The article titled ‘Delay in opening sluice gates caused flooding’ explained in detail how the proposal to release water from the Chembarabakkam lake was caught in bureaucratic red-tape, causing the heavy flooding.

Three days later, Tamil newspaper Dinamalar also carried a story on similar lines with the headline screaming that the floods were due to government negligence.

Throughout the floods and the days after when relief was being distributed in affected areas, the ruling party AIADMK received much flak after reports of instances where there had been attempts to sabotage credit for relief work.

It was not just TOI and Dinamalar. Reports on how the government had been caught unawares and how they reacted slowly and carelessly to a situation that required immediate attention dominated the narrative on mainstream, digital and social media.

It had become standard practice to expect defamation cases for reports critical of the government on important issues. But in the aftermath of the floods, many journalists in Chennai thought that with criticism coming in for the government from every quarter, the government will not go behind media houses with the threat of defamation cases.

But that has been proved wrong.  Amidst all the flood rehabilitation work and impending elections, surprisingly the TN government has time and will to file defamation complaints.

Strangely, the new defamation complaints come just weeks after the Supreme Court advised the Tamil Nadu State to stop taking criticism of governance as a personal insult.

While hearing a petition filed by DMDK leader Vijayakanth, seeking protection against a criminal defamation case, the court was openly curious about the inflow of such cases from Tamil Nadu. That’s not all. On November 30, a Supreme Court bench led by Justice F.M.I. Kalifulla dismissed the TN government’s plea challenging a Madras High Court order disallowing police custody for Tamil folksinger Kovan.

Tamil Nadu government means serious business when it files  cases against certain individuals like folk singer Kovan and this was proven as Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi himself appeared for the state. A surprised Supreme Court even questioned why the government had employed someone as senior as Rohatgi for a case against a folk singer.

 “Why should the attorney-general appear against small persons (like the respondent Kovan). Is it such a big case that the office of the A-G should be engaged? We see no merits. We don’t want to interfere with the high court order. Dismissed,” the court said.

The court’s criticism has not perturbed the Tamil Nadu government at all. Senior editors believe that the new cases are uncharacteristic of Jayalalithaa as during her previous regimes, she has withdrawn defamation complaints, rather than file new ones.

Instead of gunning for the media, it is perhaps time for the government to introspect on their style of functioning. Even as the floods receded, almost all government officers were unavailable for comment. Most reports on Chembarabakkam sluice gates were without any official reactions and it is only after the reports were published that the Chief Secretary decided to go for damage control.

AIADMK was in power during the 2004 tsunami and almost everyone had praised the efficiency with which the government had ensured that help reached the affected and in containing a major disease outbreak.

So then should the CM’s office not be turning the mirror inwards and take this criticism into account?

Can the media be blamed for biased reporting? The explanations offered belatedly by the Chief Secretary, PWD secretary and Chief Engineer too were reported prominently, the media did not choose to black them out.

And if the government is planning to proceed legally against everyone who has written against it on the floods, then perhaps the floodgates on defamation cases have just been opened.

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