Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s admonishment of the waiting news cameramen at the Mascot Hotel, a government-run establishment in the capital this week, asking them to 'get out' is portrayed by many as the result of a sudden spurt of anger from the Communist strongman. But scratch the surface and one will realise that there is more to Vijayan’s shouting than meets the eye.
The media had gathered to take the first visuals of a bilateral peace meeting between the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the presence of the chief minister after the state governor had sent out a public statement urging Vijayan to broker such a truce.
But instead of ensuring that the message of peace goes out through the media, the Kerala chief minister chose to display anger. By gagging the media at the venue, Vijayan not only spoiled any chances of the warring factions of either parties cooling tempers on seeing the visuals of their leaders sitting across a table, but also seems to have sent out a message that free and independent press is a far fetched thought in Communist-ruled Kerala
"I don’t see this as a one-off incident. Vijayan has always had differences as a political leader with the media and that has been reflected in his behaviour since he came to power. But as a chief minister, he has no right to curtail the freedom of the press or to stop them from doing their job. Any such attempts will be met with fierce opposition by journalists in Kerala," C Narayanan, general secretary, Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) told Firstpost.
Kerala’s journalists do have a reason to feel antagonised as what happened at the Mascot Hotel is not an anomaly. Barely had the furore over the incident died down that the general manager of the hotel — who is a government staffer — was summoned by the Chief Minister's Office demanding a written explanation on why the media was allowed inside the hotel. Senior journalists say this is an unprecedented situation as it is a well-recorded fact that the Mascot Hotel is a place that acts as a venue for many important government meetings and never in the past had the media been stopped from covering such events. It was natural for the camera crew to be around unless told not to be, in advance.
On Monday, not only was there no such advice, but the peace talks as well as the chief minister's impending public statement were also widely publicised as per the governor’s message and from the public information managers at the CMO. Vijayan’s reaction after all this has only baffled one and all.
“This is a very dangerous trend which I am not sure many people even among the journalists have realised. It’s not just about the high ideals of freedom of press alone. But here the government is making all efforts to completely banish the reporter and his camera from places of importance which will become a precedent that will censure news in all forms,’’ warns senior journalist Sunnykutty Abraham based in Thiruvananthapuram.
By Tuesday, a day after the chief minister’s tirade, the patterns were becoming clearly visible. The staff at the government guest house in Thiruvananthapuram denied entry to the media at another bilateral meeting, this time between the District leadership of the BJP-RSS combine and the CPM. With the staff telling the media off-record that they had orders from not just the government but also the district leadership of the CPM to stop media persons. It was becoming increasingly clear that what happened at the Mascot Hotel is a only a small chapter in a grand agenda and not just a momentary loss of civility by the Chief Minister.
“There is a specific reason why Vijayan has picked on the media. Perhaps he just wants to erase the public perception that he is meeting the BJP leaders due to the pressure from the Governor’s office. The best way to do it is to pick on the media to show that he is still the all powerful leader. Since the media’s credibility is being questioned nowadays he thinks he can get away with this. But this trend will be disastrous for a Left front government,’’ added PA Pouran, a noted social activist.
Vijayan’s ‘hatred’ for media
Vijayan, the politician's deep-rooted dislike for the media is a well-documented fact. But perhaps this is the time the media in Kerala is realising that Vijayan, the chief minister has not changed from his earlier stand.
Vijayan, the politician had reasons to feel annoyed with the media. After all more than one-and-a-half decade of his political life were spent in doldrums because of what he claims is a witch-hunt by the media in the name of the SNC Lavalin case.
With speculations taking form that Vijayan had taken crores of rupees as kickback from a Canadian company for modernisation of generators at three hydro electric projects in the state, a trial by media was only inevitable.
But adding fuel to fire, Vijayan’s nemesis VS Achuthanandan and his team used the media, especially the Malayalam vernacular dailies and prominent channels, to vitiate the case against Vijayan and paint him as tainted party secretary — a tag he had to live with from the early 2000s to 2013, till a CBI special court exonerated him.
It is also a well-known fact that during this period news about Vijayan was indeed planted and even written by paid columnists in vernacular dailies which were then translated and sent to Delhi to fight the case against him in the CPM polit bureau.
Vijayan still believes that these media reports indeed had a role to play in him being sidelined in 2006 Assembly polls which saw Achuthanandan becoming the chief minister.
“Vijayan still feels very strongly that it was the media intervention that prevented him from tightening his control over the party in the early stages when he was the state secretary. His entire anger comes from this feeling of the media forming a syndicate and trying to fix him. This he still holds strong against the media,’’ noted veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar told Firstpost.
But with 2016 elections the picture changed because by then Vijayan had taken total control over the party after having successfully proved himself right in the Lavalin case which turned the tables against Achuthanandan.
But even then the chief minister Vijayan was not ready to forgo his hatred for the media and that resulted in a series of attempts to ensure that news is censured and every attempt by the media to work independently is scuttled.
It all started when he announced that there will no more be cabinet briefings, a system which successive chief ministers in Kerala have always followed. Even EK Nayanar another iron-fisted communist from Kannur had never shied away from addressing the media after a cabinet meeting, when he was chief minister of the state.
Hence Vijayan’s decision was a shocker to many and when efforts were made ensure that the minutes of the cabinet stayed away from the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the writing was certainly on the wall.
“There was an attempt to trivialise the work that the press is doing in Kerala and through it ensure that the right of people to know is scuttled. That is why at the outset itself Vijayan said you will know crucial decisions of the cabinet meeting through the PRD only, which means you will only selectively inform the people of our decisions, which is unbecoming of an elected government,’’ added Narayanan.
When the media had a run-in with a section of lawyers last year, Vijayan made hogwash of an attempt at brokering peace between both. While a responsible government should have taken concrete efforts at ensuring that two pillars of democracy do not take to a fist fight, Vijayan trivialised the issue by telling media persons, “It is better if you do not go to the courts to beat or get beaten.’’ Such was Vijayan’s apathy towards a genuine issue faced by the media.
Central leadership steps in
The chief minister’s angry spat at the Mascot Hotel on Monday, is now seeing reverberations in Delhi.
Sources say CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury minced no words in expressing his displeasure at Vijayan’s meaningless tirade and in days to come, an already strained relationship between the two leaders could further deteriorate.
Though no official word would ever emerge condemning his act, given the clout that Vijayan enjoys in party that is on a ventilator across the country except Kerala, Vijayan’s attitude towards not just the media but across the spectrum is certainly the subject of ridicule inside the party too.
“There is a general feeling here in Delhi that whatever good work that the party has been able to do in Kerala is being lost by the terrible attitude that Vijayan has towards most things including the media. Senior leaders are worried that such perception disasters could prove dear for the party in the 2019 polls and ahead,’’ says a senior journalist who covers the Left from the national capital.
For instance a few months ago when E Ahmed the former Union minister passed away a group of journalists were invited to the Kannur guest house to record an obituary message from the chief minister. Reporters now recollect that what happened at the Thiruvananthapuram was repeated at Kannur too just because the news crew had stood inside the guest house to avoid the hot sun, which was not to the liking of the chief minister.
Vijayan’s such PR disasters come at a time when the CPM is facing flak for once against igniting violent politics and this time at Thiruvananthapuram. Activists even claim that Vijayan's behaviour is only an extension of the tensions that the party wants to keep alive in Kerala.
“See the CPM needs to keep its cadre active in Kerala if they have to sustain the party in the long run and that will be possible only if they are given a free run at violence. Hence if Vijayan or any of the CPM top brass is seen along with BJP state leadership it will prove counterproductive to what they are standing for at the moment. Media should understand and see through this game plan of the party,’’ advices noted social activist CR Neelakanadan.
Updated Date: Aug 04, 2017 09:49 AM