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The media and the State government

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

Sunday 30 November 2003, by SUBRAMANIAN*T.S.

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 24, November 22 - December 05, 2003.

"CONFUSION results from reading newspapers. But people are not confused. In general, people do not read newspapers. They watch television." This was how Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa responded in the Assembly on November 5, 2003, when V. Sivapunniyam of the Communist Party of India (CPI) spoke about the scare among people following newspaper reports that non-conversion of their ration cards into honorary ration cards by October 31 would invite penal action.

In a statement on October 6 Jayalalithaa had explained why she "generally" tried to "avoid meeting the media". The previous day she had had a brief interaction with the media at the Secretariat after a Cabinet meeting. She said in her statement: "I find that, as usual, most sections of the media including most of the newspapers, have chosen to wilfully misinterpret my responses to their queries. At the Cabinet meeting... the issue involving Union Minister of State for Non-Conventional Energy Sources, M. Kannappan, was not discussed at all. The Cabinet met to consider the designs submitted by various architects for the new Secretariat complex to be constructed shortly.

"When mediapersons asked me whether any decision was taken by the Cabinet, I did not think they were referring to the Kannappan issue since the Cabinet met only to discuss the designs for the new Secretariat complex. It was that matter I had in mind when I replied that no decision was taken and that the decision has been deferred. However, practically all sections of the media have reported that the Cabinet did not take a decision on the Kannappan issue."

(Jayalalithaa had written to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on September 22, asking that Kannappan be dropped from the Cabinet for his speech a few days earlier in support of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The media had reported that the government was "waiting for the Prime Minister’s response" before taking a decision on arresting Kannappan.)

The November 7 Assembly sentence on the five representatives of The Hindu and the Editor of Murasoli was not the first time that the Tamil Nadu Assembly, and specifically a government headed by Jayalalithaa, had crossed swords with the media on a privilege issue. Massive protests by media organisations all over the country and political parties erupted in April 1992 when Assembly Speaker Sedapatti R. Muthiah issued warrants of arrest against K.P. Sunil, former correspondent of The Illustrated Weekly of India; S. Selvam, Editor of Murasoli, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) organ; and S.K.I. Sunther, Editor of Kovai Malai Murasu (a Tamil eveninger). Jayalalithaa was the Chief Minister then.

Sunil approached the Supreme Court, which stayed the arrest. But Muthiah asked the Madras (now Chennai) Police Commissioner to ignore the stay order. Muthiah claimed that the sovereignty and supremacy of the legislature could not be questioned in any forum or under any law. (The Supreme Court has since ruled that the Constitution is supreme, and that proceedings in legislatures are subject to judicial review.) A three-member Bench of the Supreme Court referred Sunil’s petition to the Constitution Bench, which referred the matter, in 1997, to Speaker P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan, who dropped the proceedings. The DMK, headed by Karunanidhi, was in power then.

During 1991-1996 when Jayalalithaa headed the AIADMK government the media faced intimidation and even violence. Police swoops on Tamil magazines’ offices, illegal seizure of magazine copies, prior restraint on publication of articles, arrests of editors, assaults on reporters, snapping of electricity supply, ransacking of magazine offices, and defamation cases, were seen then. Now the government resorts to legal methods, essentially.

The Tamil magazine Nakkheeran and its Editor R.R Gopal, were, and continue to be, the prime targets. Gopal is now in the Central Prison, Chennai after he was arrested by the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) on April 11 (Frontline, April 26 and May 10, 2003). Between 1991 and 1996, the government filed 146 cases against Nakkheeran and its journalists. On several occasions, copies of the magazine were seized and burnt. Sale of the magazine was blocked and its vendors were threatened; electricity supply to the magazine office was cut and one of its journalists, Kadiraidurai, was beaten up by an AIADMK office-bearer and suffered fractures.

After the AIADMK returned to power in May 2001, it began targeting Nakkheeran again. The Hindu too has come under the scanner, with the government slapping on it a string of criminal defamation cases. The latest one, the seventeenth, was filed on November 10 on the news report headlined "People’s court only way out for opposition", published on April 13, 2003. The newspaper faces a civil suit too.

Editor-in-Chief N. Ram called the latest defamation case "a new avatar, but it is not a very fearsome avatar". Assembly Speaker K. Kalimuthu had suo motu referred the report to the Privileges Committee of the House in April. What the Speaker found objectionable included the portions: "the chastisement that they received at the hands of the Chief Minister", and "Most of the legislators were shocked at the epithets the Chief Minister threw at the opposition for its `behaviour’. Although the Privileges Committee recommended seven days’ imprisonment to the writer, the punishment was dropped because the Chief Minister suggested on November 7 that it need not be pressed. But it took "a new birth" as a criminal defamation case after the nationwide outrage over the Assembly sentencing journalists on November 7.

Other publications that are facing defamation cases filed by the AIADMK government include The New Indian Express, India Today, Outlook, The Statesman, The Telegraph, The Times of India and Tamil dailies Dinamalar and Dinakaran.

Between 1991 and 1993, during Jayalalithaa’s earlier tenure, 180 defamation cases were filed against journalists, political leaders and lesser politicians. She withdrew all the cases on December 30, 1993.

On April 4, 1987, when M.G. Ramachandran was Chief Minister, Assembly Speaker P.H. Pandian sentenced S. Balasubramanian, Editor of Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan to three months’ rigorous imprisonment for breach of privilege for publishing a cartoon deriding Ministers and MLAs. This led to countrywide protests and Balasubramanian was released after a couple of days in prison. He preferred to go to prison rather than apply for bail. (It was Pandian who at that time propounded the infamous doctrine of "sky-high powers" for legislatures.) But Balasubramanian challenged the sentence on him as unconstitutional in the Madras High Court. In his petition he said the privilege issue was not referred to the Privileges Committee at all. So he got no chance to explain his case. He, therefore, felt that his rights had been violated.

The full Bench of the Madras High Court ruled in 1994 that there had been "a gross violation of law as also the principles of natural justice" and of Balasubramanian’s fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution. The Full Bench ordered a compensation of Rs.1,000 to him.

On July 1, 1985, when MGR was Chief Minister, the Assembly sentenced A.M. Paulraj, Editor of trade magazine Vaniga Ottrumai (Traders’ Unity) to two weeks’ simple imprisonment for an article in the February 1983 issue, which the House found to be derogatory. Paulraj ultimately served the sentence.

When MGR was Chief Minister the Assembly enacted the draconian Scurrilous Writing Act - which made scurrilous writing a non-bailable offence. After protests broke out, the Act was repealed in 1984.

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