In the past few days, a seemingly well-coordinated attack on popular news anchors has shaken Tamil media, but the response to it has been equally combative.

Collage of journalists and news anchors Gunsaekaran of News18 Tamil on the left and Karthigaichelvan of Puthiya Thalaimurai on the right
Voices Opinion Thursday, July 23, 2020 - 09:37

In May 2019, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi came back to power with a sweeping victory, few states stood out by not swaying in the same direction -  Tamil Nadu was a leader in that pack. The DMK-led alliance won 38 out of 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state, leaving the AIADMK-BJP combine red-faced. The Tamil Nadu unit of BJP was asked to prepare a report for the central leadership on what went wrong, and one point that was highlighted was that not only was Tamil TV news media ‘not BJP friendly’, they were clearly ‘antagonistic’. 

The assessment wasn’t really news to anyone, for Tamil TV news media’s absolute disregard for an electorally-irrelevant BJP in the state was considered par for the course. It irked BJP party leaders so much that back in 2017, party leader H Raja had famously called the entire Tamil media ‘anti-national’. But the 2019 defeat fast-tracked efforts to rein in Tamil TV media at every level possible.

All-out attack on Tamil TV media

In the months following the 2019 elections, BJP leaders started making their unhappiness clear. They even embarked on a boycott of Tamil TV debates, blaming news anchors for targeting the BJP. They made snide remarks on ‘urban naxals and jihadis’ in newsrooms, and tried to create the perception that some of the TV anchors were ‘anti-Hindu’. They continue to do so even now. These journalists were all called stooges of the DMK. This was replicated with manifold aggression online by people like YouTuber Maridhas and former journalist Madan Ravichandran. 

In the past few weeks, two Tamil TV anchors – M Gunasekaran of News18 Tamil and Karthigaichelvan of Puthiya Thalaimurai – have been singled out with campaigns to oust them. While Gunasekaran was accused of being biased due to his close personal links to the Dravidar Kazhagam (his wife is the daughter of a senior DK leader), the attack on Karthigaichelvan is slowly gaining momentum. 

A petition was circulated to get Gunasekaran and his colleagues fired. It was also alleged that staffers of News18 Tamil were behind the YouTube channel Karuppar Koottam, which has recently been taken down and its creators arrested for ridiculing Hindu gods. News18 staff have staunchly denied any involvement with Karuppar Koottam and the case is now being investigated by the police. 

Many Tamil journalists believe that the public attack on these journalists is only a façade created to arm-twist media owners into firing the news anchors. They allege that many influential individuals of the Sangh Parivar in Chennai are working the back-channels to get the news anchors fired and get their loyalists appointed as editorial heads of these two channels. It is also believed that senior Central ministers are being requested to lean on media owners to tow the BJP’s line. H Raja even tweeted about how while media owners were nationalists, their channels were infiltrated by Dravidians.

All of this has now started bearing fruit. As it happened a few years ago in national TV media, the BJP has also found support from a few journalists in the state who have personal ambitions and agendas. Gunasekaran’s editorial powers have been clipped. A senior member of his team, Haseef Mohamed, has been forced to resign. Haseef was criticised for his alleged involvement in pelting stones at S.Ve Shekar’s house in 2018 during a protest against the BJP member’s abusive remarks about journalists. 

Ironically, for all the complaining done by BJP, its share of airtime has only increased. Recently, BJP spokesperson Aseervatham Achary wrote a post profusely thanking Karthigaichelvan for giving him his “first break” in Tamil media.

Journalism, ideology and politics

Tamil journalists are not taking any of this lying down, especially because they have seen the results of the right-wing’s engineered credibility crisis in the national English and Hindi media. They realise that once they let the BJP-RSS machinery control the media, they will be left with the same idolatry, one-sided, embarrassing shouting matches that we are subject to on many English and Hindi primetime TV today.

Political ideologies aside, Tamil viewers also recognise the value of journalism as they have more recently seen in the coverage of Cyclone Ockhi, the coronavirus pandemic, and the farmer crisis. It was thus unsurprising to see a major online campaign launched against the News18 Tamil management in the immediate aftermath of the right-wing’s campaign against Gunasekaran, asking them not to bow down to pressure. Thousands of viewers have stood by Karthigaichelvan and Gunasekaran online. It was also a busy day for the digital wings of various political parties – why let a good Twitter trend war go uncontested. 

Tamil journalism is no stranger to politics, or the hypocrisies which come along with it. Much like media elsewhere, journalists often double up as political consultants, or fall prey to plants, sometimes willingly. Some write stories by day and political press releases by night. Often, behind exposes and investigations, are political operatives leaking documents and dictating agendas. In fact, we tend to forget that one of the first publications to write on the 2G scam was the Maran-family-owned Dinakaran, in an attempt to target A Raja over an internal rivalry in the DMK. As political-guns-for-hire shift bases from one party to another, journalists cozy with them change their tunes. But the common and oft-repeated criticism against Tamil journalism of being “more politically biased” than elsewhere is not always accurate. Journalists here are certainly more ideological, and deeply influenced by Periyarist thought, and that’s not the same as political bias.

And why will they not be ideological? Unlike many elite journalists of English media who had their influential parents or J-school education networks open doors for them, most Tamil journalists have made it up the hard way. They studied in public schools in impoverished, rural parts of Tamil Nadu, made their way into journalism with paltry stipends and spent years chasing stories before they could even think of looking at journalism as a serious career. Some of them learned English on the job (a few transitioned to English media), and built their career with sheer passion and hard work. Their own lived experiences is proof of why social justice politics is the way out of social discrimination and poverty for millions of people, so they strongly believe in Periyarist ideology of social justice - whether they are atheists or not - as many other Tamils do. Their lives are made of struggles and sacrifices which people who went to premier schools and colleges cannot even fathom. For them, neutrality in the face of deep social injustice is nothing but a manifestation of Brahminism. 

Journalism does not exist in a vacuum. Devoid of context and without a sense of fairness and social justice, narrating stories from the ground is only providing information - it is not journalism. In the Indian scenario, journalism has to be informed by the historic injustices that have been inflicted on communities. Tamil Nadu is home to several excellent journalists of different political leanings, many award-winners who report fairly and accurately on a daily basis. Attacks against their credibility on the grounds of ideology only forces journalists to operate under an atmosphere of doubt and diffidence, and the ultimate loser is the reader or viewer. 

Not too long ago, the Tamil TV news landscape was a mockery of journalism, with channels like Sun TV and Jaya TV being just party mouthpieces. Puthiya Thalaimurai, and the many other channels which followed, changed that by putting the viewer first and giving them better journalism. The journalist ecosystem in Tamil Nadu, which once had heavy Brahmin dominance - and still does in many ways - has seen more diversity in the last few years, and that is thanks to the politics of social justice espoused by Tamil journalists who are under attack now, and their peers. Even so, there is valid criticism against Tamil TV journalism, like any other media ecosystem. There are pressures of TRP, self-censoring, authoritarian team leaders, interfering owners, and personal agendas. But what’s being attempted now is a hostile takeover of the Tamil TV media so a right-wing lobby can control the entire ecosystem, and that can be considerably worse than anything the Tamil TV media has ever seen, as evidenced by what we see on English and Hindi news channels today.

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