AK Saseendran sting: Arrest of Mangalam TV’s editorial team raises freedom of press concerns

As the Kerala police recorded the arrest of Mangalam TV CEO R Ajith Kumar and four others of the editorial team in the state transport minister’s ‘honey trap’ episode on Tuesday night, questions are being raised on the freedom of the press.

That, this indeed is an unprecedented situation where the entire editorial top brass of a leading news channel are now behind bars, has certainly set the cats among the pigeon in the state’s all powerful media fraternity.

Apart from the CEO, those arrested include the head of the investigation team, a news coordinating editor and two news editors.

File image of AK Saseendran. PTI

File image of AK Saseendran. PTI

There is no doubt that Mangalam TV was wrong in ‘honey trapping’ former transport minister AK Saseendran. But now there is fear spreading among media persons that this could well be the tool that the Left government was looking for to subvert the freedom of the press in the state.

The Kerala Union of Working Journalist (KUWJ) which had initially held Mangalam TV’s act with contempt and had even issued a statement distancing itself from the channel’s actions has now started to speak in a different tone.

“Although our stand has been against the way the channel seemed to have done the so-called sting, I am not sure if we can agree to the police going into news rooms in the name of questioning journalists and then arresting them after 12 hours of interrogation. No doubt, journalists should cooperate with investigations but am not sure whether this is the right way,’’ C Narayanan, general secretary of KUWJ told Firstpost on Wednesday night.

Narayanan went on to say that the journalist body was apprehensive whether the police was right in arresting an entire editorial team of a news channel while the woman journalist who seemed to have ‘honey trapped’ the minister could not be identified in public or questioned till now.

The journalists’ union does have a point. The union feels that the police have not been able to clearly set the blame on the right people and perhaps that is the reason why even after questioning the nine-member editorial team for close to 12 hours on Tuesday the crime branch ended up arresting five.

“This is perhaps the first time that even those people who do not have direct association with the crime or the conspiracy as it is claimed is being arrested just because they seem to be present at the desk and working at that particular time,’’ added Narayanan.

Such a scenario only makes the motive of the investigation more intriguing, raising serious concerns whether Mangalam TV’s wrong doing has given the state a much wanted stick to beat the entire media with.

A bad name for all 

Senior journalists who have completely distanced themselves from the actions of the channel now fear that this self-inflicted gash by a section of the media will have long-term repercussions for the relation of the media with the larger section of the society in Kerala which is already at loggerheads with the press.

“None of us has any doubt that this is a crime. But it will also paint all of us with the same brush. It will now give licence to all sorts of people to ask questions on the credibility of the media, the majority of which in Kerala has been highly rational in spite of being very aggressive,’’ C Gowridasan, bureau head of The Hindu in Thiruvananthapuram told Firstpost.

The media and the political fraternity in Kerala, barring the occasional confrontation, have always been accommodative of each other unlike many other places in the country. Journalists now feel it is this dynamics that might change with the Mangalam TV episode.

“There has always been a sparring going on from both the sides. Neither would give in but at the same time both the sides knew the limits. That may change from now on,’’ added Gouridasan.

Kerala is a state where political allegiance has even divided the media houses with all major political parties having their mouth pieces in the form a newspaper or news channel.

But even such heights of political one-upmanship using the media as a tool had a limit. There was a rationale behind it.

Gouridasan says, “Even among media houses there was always criticism of each other and which were reflected in editorials and otherwise. But at the end of the day, there was a democratic understanding of each other too because the primary motive was a political one and not profit, crass commercial ones.’’

Journalism of deceit and blackmail

Two among the top brass of the Mangalam TV, Ajith Kumar and K Jayachandran, who are now under arrest, have a long history of using journalism as a tool for blackmail and deceit.

Fifteen years ago, Jayachandran who is currently the head of the investigation team at Mangalam TV and in all probability the brain behind the honey trap, had even gone behind bars for a few days for the infamous ‘fake letter case’.

In 2002, a question was raised in Parliament about Rs 336 crores of hawala money that had allegedly flown into Kerala but could not be identified.

Soon a letter was prepared in the name of the then ADGP of Intelligence Hormis Tharakan and sent to the chief minister’s office claiming that the then fisheries minister KV Thomas had been paid off a part of the hawala money.

A police investigation revealed that Jayachandran had conspired with a former Congress MLA to make the fake letter to try bringing down the minister.

“The purpose of what happened in 2002 is also the same as what is happening today. It’s nothing but extortion in the name of journalism. Only thing is that the medium has changed from print to TV and digital. I feel the whole fraternity is to take blame for enabling such elements to survive for long,’’ says Roy Mathew, a Thiruvananthapuram-based senior journalist.

In all such operations that took place in Kerala in the name of journalism, there had always been a political hand. In 2002, if it was the Congress infighting between the I & A groups that saw the ‘fake letter’ fiasco, in 2017 the political hand is yet to come out in the open, perhaps something which the judicial inquiry could throw light on.

The fighting inside the NCP of which Saseendran is the MLA could well be the cause of the ‘honey trap’ operation against him.

The media in Kerala has only recently survived a bitter battle with a section of the lawyers, right from the high court to district courts in the state. Even before that matter reaches a final truce, it would only be detrimental on the freedom of the press to play into the hands of a powerful political class by unleashing such irresponsible journalism.

Updated Date: Apr 05, 2017 13:51 PM

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