In his first address after taking oath as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, speaking to a huge gathering in Vijayawada on May 30, had named three prominent media organisations — Eenadu, Andhra Jyothy and TV5 — for carrying out a sustained vilification campaign against him, his family and his YSR Congress Party (YSRCP).
He had warned that his government would not hesitate to file defamation cases if they continue to write negative stories to defame the government.
This may sound as an unusual statement for any new Chief Minister to make, but it comes as no surprise in Andhra Pradesh, given the equation between the media and politics. In a state where both the print and electronic media are sharply divided on political lines and often run stories in a shrill, campaign-mode tone, the line between the news and views is often blurred.
Ban on channels
The first flashpoint for the new government came during the recently-concluded budget session of the state Assembly when three Telugu news channels — ETV (of Eenadu group), ABN Andhra Jyothy (of Andhra Jyothy group) and TV5 — were barred entry for allegedly “violating the established norms”.
The charge against the leading channels was that they provided live coverage of a press conference by the three suspended opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP) MLAs from the media point on Assembly premises even while the session was on.
In their response, the media organisations said that there were no written instructions that live telecast from the media point was not allowed while the Assembly was in session.
Assembly Speaker T Sitaram issued an order, barring the entry of representatives of the three channels on the grounds that they had violated established norms.
“It has been brought to the notice of the Speaker by government chief whip G Srikanth Reddy that the channel has been given live telecast from the media point while the session is going on. As directed by the Speaker, representatives of your electronic media organisation will not be permitted into the Legislature building till we receive an explanation for the said lapse,” said the letter from the Legislature Secretary to the three organisations.
These three media groups are largely seen as being pro-TDP in their editorial leaning.
Though the TV channels assured the office of the Speaker that they would strictly follow the guidelines in future, the Speaker was not convinced with the explanation.
“You can wake up a person who is sleeping but you cannot do anything when one is pretending to sleep,” Sitaram was quoted as saying in a report carried by ‘Sakshi’ Telugu daily owned by the family members of the Chief Minister.
Meanwhile, the Speaker told a delegation of journalists’ union members that there was no question of allowing these channels to telecast the assembly proceedings as they had violated the assembly rules.
The media houses find themselves caught in political crossfire. Nearly four months after the completion of the election process, the bitterness and rancour that had marked the poll campaign still persists between political parties and media organisations.
While Jagan threatened legal action against a section of the media if they continued to run “malicious campaign” against him, TDP leaders have targeted the publication owned by the Chief Minister’s family over “deliberate distortion” of news to malign their party.
Traditionally, media and politics have been inexorably linked as the combined Andhra Pradesh had witnessed the power of the media in ‘making or marring’ the prospects of political parties. In fact, a popular saying in political circles is that if ‘Eenadu’ group, which has been supportive of the TDP for decades, had its way, the TDP would remain in power forever.
Both the print and electronic media have served as powerful tools to propagate the ideology of various political parties and influence the public opinion.
Two recent examples bear testimony to this trend. The renewed agitation for separate Telangana state, launched by K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in 2001, found traction among the people and picked up momentum after the launch of the Telugu daily ‘Namaste Telangana’ in June 2011. The daily and the television channel ‘T-News’ are owned by close relatives of KCR. The media outlets played a significant role in strengthening the statehood cause and building a sustained narrative around the demand for a separate state. Subsequently, in December 2016, an English daily ‘Telangana Today’ was launched by the group to reach out to urban readers.
Similarly, the ‘Sakshi’ group of publications and a news channel by the same name, owned by the family members of Jagan, served as an effective tool for the YSRCP to reach out to the people and build a powerful narrative around the party’s policies and programmes. Though there is a massive controversy surrounding its funding, the Telugu daily, along with the TV channel, has been quite unabashed in pursuing “campaign-mode journalism” with the twin objective of “exposing” the omissions and commissions of the previous TDP government headed by N Chandrababu Naidu and promoting Jagan and his party.
At different points in the history of Andhra Pradesh, media organisations have played a pivotal role in the growth of regional parties, be it TDP, TRS or YSRCP. Though TDP, launched by the matinee idol of Telugu cinema and former AP CM, NT Rama Rao in 1982, has no media outlet of its own, it has the solid backing of Eenadu Group, Andhra Jyothy and other Telugu news channels promoted by businessmen.
The role played by Eenadu daily — which now has a combined circulation of over 17 lakh — in popularising the TDP since the party’s inception is now part of the state’s political folklore. ‘Andhra Jyothy’, with a circulation of 7.5 lakh, is another media group, comprising a daily and a news channel, which has stood by Naidu’s TDP.
These two media groups have often been the targets of attack by the Congress. In fact, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister and Jagan’s father, YS Rajasekhar Reddy used to derisively refer to them as “those two newspapers” and his party leaders often dub the pro-TDP media outlets as “yellow papers”, referring to the TDP’s colour.
National parties — BJP and Congress — have no media outlets of their own nor do they find support from any of the existing publications or channels. Ironically, the mouthpieces of the two Left parties — CPI and CPI (M) — remain largely confined to their cadre and have been unable to penetrate the market.