In Odisha, politically-owned media houses sing to tunes of patron parties as objectivity takes backseat in poll discourse

With owners of leading media houses fighting the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in Odisha, not only truth is killed, but even basic neutrality is not maintained in news reporting

Debi Mohanty April 06, 2019 07:37:16 IST
In Odisha, politically-owned media houses sing to tunes of patron parties as objectivity takes backseat in poll discourse
  • As far as media strength is concerned, the ruling BJD, clearly enjoys an edge over its opponents, the BJP and Congress

  • Three BJD leaders — Bhartruhari Mahtab (Prajatantra), Soumya Ranjan Patnaik (Sambad and Kanak TV) and and Achyuta Samanta (Kalinga TV) — have their media units

  • Baijayant Jay Panda, who joined BJP last month, has support of the most popular regional news channel, Odisha TV, which is owned by his wife Jagi

With the mercury soaring high by the day, Odisha, known for its long summers, is staring at a terrible season ahead. However, the political weather in the coastal state, thanks to the simultaneous state and general elections, has already generated much heat.

As the electoral combat intensifies, the leading media houses — either owned or promoted by candidates belonging to different parties — are busy fighting in the political ring. As a result, in the words of Rabi Das, former editor of an Odia daily and political commentator, "Not only truth is killed, even basic neutrality is not maintained.”

In Odisha politicallyowned media houses sing to tunes of patron parties as objectivity takes backseat in poll discourse

Naveen Patnaik has inducted owners of media houses into BJD ahead of the polls. PTI

As far as media strength is concerned, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), clearly enjoys an edge over its opponents, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Indian National Congress. At least, in numbers though. Three of its leaders, Cuttack Lok Sabha MP Bhartruhari Mahtab, who is contesting from the same seat, and two Rajya Sabha members — media tycoon Soumya Ranjan Patnaik (MLA candidate from Khandapara Assembly segment) and educational entrepreneur Achyuta Samanta who is fighting for the tribal-dominated Kandhamal Lok Sabha constituency — have their media units.

While Bhartruhari, son of former Odisha chief minister Harekrushna Mahtab, edits Prajatantra, an old local daily, the regional news channel, Kalinga TV (widely viewed as a mouthpiece of the ruling party) is run by the group of institutions promoted by Samanta. He is known globally for the Kalinga Institute of Social sciences (KISS).

However, Soumya’s Eastern Media Limited (EML) — that runs, apart from other media ventures, an FM channel, a vernacular daily Sambad, an English news portal and the 24x7 news channel Kanak TV — is arguably, the biggest media network in the state. Sambad, edited by Soumya, claims to be the largest circulated Odia daily.

In 1996, Soumya, brother of state Congress chief Niranjan Patnaik, had represented the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat on Congress ticket. After his expulsion from Congress in 2013, he had floated the Aama Odisha Party (AOP). Soumya is contesting the state Assembly election as a member of BJD.

On the other hand, the saffron party, with the joining of ex-BJD leader Baijayant Panda, last month, has bagged the support of the most popular regional news channel, Odisha TV, commonly known as O TV. The first channel to beam round the clock local news in the state, O TV is owned by the industrialist-politician’s wife Jagi Mangat Panda.

The Congress, however, like its position in the state, seems to be lagging behind its opponents even in terms of media power. The party has access to only one media outlet the Samaya, owned by Congress legislator Chiranjib Biswal’s family. Son of former deputy chief minister Basant Kumar Biswal, Chiranjib is seeking re-election from Jagatsinghpur. He is the chairman of the group that publishes the daily, while his brother Ranjib, a Rajya Sabha leader and a former IPL chief, is its managing editor. But, when it comes to readership, other leading vernacular dailies are well ahead of Samaya.

Incidentally, last year, just over a month after Panda’s suspension from the BJD for ‘anti party activities', BJD chief Naveen Patnaik, had named both Soumya and Samanta for Rajya Sabha. Both had been inducted into the party, barely a few hours before the announcement was made. This was widely viewed in the state, as a move by the BJD boss, to have the two media houses (ran by Samanta and  Soumya) in his party’s side to compensate for the loss of O TV.

While, right from its inception in 1984, Sambad, the flagship newspaper of the EML group, had a pro-Congress approach, Soumya was a bitter critic of the BJD. However, the tone and tenor of political news and analysis published in the Odia daily took a complete ‘U-turn' after Soumya merged his AOP with the BJD.

“It’s natural for both Sambad and Kanak TV to support the BJD. They also, support the Congress, to an extent,” observes Das.

According to Das, Sambad and Kanak TV can’t ignore the Congress, completely, though. “Kanak TV may have come into being a few years ago, but Sambad was set up with the backing and blessings of JB Patnaik (former chief minister of Odisha who is also Soumya’s father-in-law),” says Das.

It's not just the larger media houses like the ones mentioned above, but even the lesser known publications such as Sanchar and Sarbasadharana, which are doing their bit for their patrons.

Sanchar’s founder, Damodar Rout, is BJP candidate from Balikuda-Erasama Assembly seat. Rout, a long time associate and minister in the cabinets of the father-son chief ministers duo (the maverick late Biju Patnaik and Naveen), jumped into the lotus pond following his ouster from the BJD. On the other hand, Sarbasadharana is believed to have been promoted by senior former minister and BJD candidate from Brahmagiri Assembly segment, Sanjay Das Burma.

In Odisha politicallyowned media houses sing to tunes of patron parties as objectivity takes backseat in poll discourse

File image of Baijayant Panda and Amit Shah. PTI

Experts, believe, with the owners of media outlets in the fray in the upcoming Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Odisha, superior or fair election/political coverage, by their respective media arms, is least expected.

According to Pradeep Kumar Mahapatra, former head, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Berhampur University, media’s use for political purposes started after Odisha became a separate province in 1936. In keeping pace with the freedom movement in the national scene, in Odisha, media has been used as a tool to serve the interest of its owners, mostly business groups, politicians etc.

“When somebody has political objective for running a media house, naturally, he will try to manifest for his own political gain. In such cases, objectivity in reporting, the basic essence of media is a casualty," rues Mahapatra.

Agreess Tathagata Satpathy, a senior BJD leader who edits the leading vernacular daily, Dharitri, and English daily Orissa Post.

“It’s a circus today. Not only here, but across the country, media is owned by people who have many other interests. It’s being used to fulfill their needs. Media is bending down before political masters, trying to please the political bosses, so, their own bosses get the benefits,” asserts Satpathy, a four-time Lok Sabha MP.

Satpathy’s recent decision to quit electoral politics to focus on ‘fearless journalism’ has stunned both politicians as well as those in the media. He is considered by many as a gutsy politician-cum-editor, for, despite being a senior leader of the BJD, his newspaper, many a times carried reports, including signed editorials, criticising his own government on separate issues.

Did he use his newspapers for political gain? “My readers are my best judges. In spite of my neglect (of my media), it’s not gone down, As far as I am concerned, I think, I could compartmentalise my journalism and my politics. I never consciously tried or allowed to mix both,” he says. However, he adds, “I am human. And it’s possible, my mind may not have functioned, as it should.”

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