On Tuesday, K Anoop Das, a reporter with Mathrubhoomi TV and his cameraman were allegedly manhandled and detained by the Tamil Nadu Police while covering protests against the Salem-Chennai eight-lane highway project in Tiruvannamalai. So was the reporter of a Tamil daily. This was a rather bizarre development because during a protest, if anyone is detained, it is the protester and not the mediapersons who are merely reporting on the incident. The police reportedly gave no reasons for its highhanded behaviour and released the Kerala journalists after facing backlash on social media.
It would be tempting to dismiss the Tiruvannamalai episode as a one-off incident and blame it on the over-enthusiasm of the local policemen eager to show to Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami that they would brook no resistance to his pet project. The police excuse that they were unaware of the identity of the journalists cuts no ice because the crew was armed with cameras. Salem is the home district of Palaniswami and he has been quite keen that the greenfield highway be constructed despite opposition from villagers and environmentalists.
But when this instance comes on the back of a similar crackdown on a popular Tamil news channel, one begins to wonder if there is a pattern building up. Earlier this month, two TV panelists guests including film director Ameer, Tamil channel Puthiya Thalamurai, and its reporter were booked on charges of promoting enmity on religious grounds after a ruckus was created when the channel was recording a talk show at a private college in Coimbatore.
What is galling is that the topic under discussion was 'Are continuous protests for people's basic needs or for political reasons?' This was in the context of the prolonged agitation by people in Tuticorin demanding the closure of the polluting Sterlite plant.
During the debate, Ameer referred to the communal tension in Coimbatore after the murder of Hindu Munnani functionary C Sasikumar in 2016. The cadre of the outfit present in the audience raised objections, which led to a flare-up.
To throw the rule book at a media house hosting such a debate or even on the guests expressing their views amounts to displaying an autocratic streak. When a Coimbatore court gave anticipatory bail to Ameer on Monday, even judge Sanjai Baba observed that slapping a case on the speaker of a TV debate show was "something new".
The Tamil Nadu government didn't stop at that. State-owned Arasu cable network pushed the TV channel from slot 124 slot 499. Arasu was set up to provide TV entertainment and news at an affordable cost. Today, close to 60 percent of the 1.5 crore homes with cable TV are serviced by Arasu. It is a market domination any channel can challenge at its peril.
Does this mark a shift in the governance model of Palaniswami? Most certainly. EPS seems to have decided that the sense of freedom the media in Tamil Nadu has enjoyed after J Jayalalithaa's demise is hurting his image. During Jaya's regime, defamation cases were used as an effective tool to scare journalists. With over 200 defamation cases filed by her government, the media was circumspect when it came to criticising her.
Journalists were not the only ones who bore the brunt when Jayalalithaa was around. A case of sedition was slapped on folk singer Kovan for criticising her government's prohibition policy. In fact, cases were even booked against people who speculated about her health while she was in hospital for 75 days.
Over the past few months, Palaniswami has given enough indications he has decided to use the Amma template with the media. Since December 2017, at least four Tamil news channels have found themselves on the blink on Arasu network for between 24 to 48 hours either for airing an exit poll that predicted a Dhinakaran victory in RK Nagar or debating the violence in Tuticorin.
Politically, EPS proved his critics wrong by surviving as chief minister for over 16 months despite twin revolts by O Panneerselvam and TTV Dhinakaran. He bought peace with the BJP government in Delhi, and ensured that OPS is not the favorite for New Delhi when it comes to the AIADMK.
But in an election year, EPS realises he needs a favorable media narrative. The stepping on the accelerator treatment for Puthiya Thalamurai therefore seems like a strategy to send across a message to the rest of the Tamil media that they need to fall in line or face the music.
The strategy to use the cable TV musclepower has been employed with good effect in Telangana. In 2014, soon after coming to power, Telugu news channels TV9 and ABN were taken off air by Telangana cable operators after both channels aired programmes that ridiculed Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and Telangana legislators. That the cable operators did so at the insistence of the government was obvious when KCR threatened to bury channels that insulted Telangana self-respect "10 kilometres under the ground". It took more than a year before the two channels were restored. The message was driven home: Cross the line at your own peril.
The question is whether EPS will manage to do a Jayalalithaa and whether the Tamil electronic media will resist a return to the pre-2016 days.
Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 07:38 AM