The ongoing war between the Left-wing ‘cyber warriors’ and the leading Malayalam channel Asianet News has triggered a debate on journalistic ethics and freedom of expression.
It all started with a Facebook post by PV Anvar, a Left Democratic Front MLA (Nilambur), on February 25, who shared a meme with Fahadh Faasil’s face, and a caption reading, “trouble awaits you Avaracha,” a dialogue from the movie Trance while tagging Asianet News.
The build-up was seemingly orchestrated as it culminated in a question raised in the Assembly by Anvar on March 3. The question was about a story on drug peddling in schools, that Asianet News broadcast on November 4 (2022), as part of its programme, ‘Roving Reporter’.
Also read: Kerala HC instructs police to provide protection to Asianet offices
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in his answer, said a police complaint had been filed, alleging that the schoolgirl’s soundbite used in the Asianet News story was fabricated. In the aired news, the girl narrated the alleged drug dealings at her school and the sexual abuse she underwent.
The chief minister also told the House that another case was filed by Kannur Police under POCSO on July 27 2022, based on the complaint of a man who alleged that his daughter was subjected to sexual abuse, hinting that the soundbite used in the Asianet News story was in fact that of the Kannur survivor.
‘Media under attack’
All hell broke loose on social media after the chief minister’s reply in the Assembly. CPI(M) cyber warriors – also known ‘wasps’ – started an all-out campaign against Asianet News. They alleged that the channel staged an interview by superimposing the audio of the Kannur survivor, taken on August 2022, on the visual of an underage girl, which was shot at their Kozhikode office, and deliberately aired it.
Cyber activists alleged that the channel spliced the original audio and rearranged the sequence in such a way that the final product would give an impression to the audience that more than 10 schoolgirls were sexually abused by MDMA peddlers. The argument set the tone for their narrative against Asianet News, which has been endorsed by senior leaders, including party state secretary M V Govindan.
The protest was not confined to social media as a group of activists from Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the students’ wing of CPI(M), barged into the Asianet News office in Kochi, and displayed a banner reading ‘This channel is a blot to Kerala society’. The act was widely condemned by many journalists’ organisations.
The Press Council of India (PCI), Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) and Thiruvananthapuram Press Club were among the organisations that registered their protest. Journalists, under the banner of KUWJ and other bodies, staged demonstrations in front of the Secretariat and in different districts, to denounce the incident. The KUWJ termed the incident ‘goondaism’ and not a protest.
KUWJ demanded the state government take strict action against the activists who also pushed aside a security guard of the media house during their protest. Later, the High court of Kerala directed the state government to provide adequate protection to the channel’s offices across the state.
Media outrage against state intervention
On the other hand, based on MLA Anvar’s complaint, the police filed a case against four staffers of Asianet News, including three journalists, booking them under various sections of IPC and the POCSO Act. The four are the channel’s executive editor Sindhu Sooryakumar, resident editor, Shajahan Kaliyath, chief reporter Noufal Bin Yusuf and Neeli R Nair, a close relative of the girl who had been allegedly used to enact in the video, posing as the drug and sexual abuse victim.
Also read: Journalist bodies condemn SFI ‘attack’ on Asianet office in Kochi
“Asianet news will comply with any lawful investigation. The investigation pertains to a story that is part of a campaign against the growing drug mafia. The FIR contains allegations of attempts to defame the government’s reputation. The fight against the drug mafia is in the best interest of society, but the government’s use of power is an infringement on media freedom. The speed at which the complaint of a ruling MLA was acted upon should be noted. We assert that forcibly entering our office and engaging in ‘thuggery’ even before starting an investigation is inappropriate for a democratic society. We affirm our commitment to conducting impartial and unbiased journalism without fear,” said a statement issued by Sindhu Sooryakumar, the channel’s executive editor.
Eminent journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, in a tweet, questioned why the same outrage that was seen against the I-T raids at BBC’s office was absent in the case of Asianet News.
“When BBC office was searched, there was an outcry; now when Asianet office is searched/raided in Kozhikode by Kerala police, (we)don’t see the same outrage. Misuse of police power that targets media without due process must be fought against each time,” he tweeted.
“A criminal case can be filed against the channel if it fabricated the story and due process followed, but there is no explanation for a raid,” he added.
VD Satheesan, the Leader of Opposition in Kerala, condemned the “intimidation and raids” at Asianet News’ office and the “threat to take cases against journalists”. Calling chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan “dhoti-clad Modi”, Satheesan added that the Opposition would stand by democratic values and the rule of law and will do everything possible to ensure freedom of media.
Media freedom not license to spread fake news: Vijayan
The government seemed to be in no mood to relent, as it was evident from the statement by the chief minister.
“Media freedom is not the license to spread false information, but the freedom of the reader to know the truth, and the Kerala government remains steadfast in protecting the latter. But we all should be concerned with the corruption of media freedom and ethics and it is normal that criticism against such deviations is raised,” Pinarayi Vijayan said in the Assembly when the issue was raised by the Opposition.
Journalistic ethics and freedom of expression
Even though Asianet News received support from different journalist unions and political parties over the alleged trespass by SFI activists at its office, the channel has not found much support from the media fraternity.
“What Asianet News did was an act of dishonesty that undermines the very integrity of the profession. They have an obligation to provide and an explanation for why they broadcast the same story that they aired three months ago – this time featuring an enactment with a girl who is purportedly underage. As far as I am aware, they have not revealed that the latest story was a recast of a previous one, suggesting that they fabricated an incident that did not actually happen. That is not journalism,” said veteran editor C L Thomas, who had been at the helm of Asianet News for several years.
Also read: I&B ministry lifts 48-hour ban on Asianet News, Media One
Thomas, however, said that SFI’s march to the Asianet office was “unwarranted and inappropriate in a democratic society.” “…particularly since those in power in this country are consistently attempting to undermine democracy using any available means,” he said.
“I think every journalist has a responsibility to report the truth and to present information in an accurate and unbiased way. The use of fake or distorted visuals undermines this responsibility and can lead to a loss of trust in journalism as a whole,” said Pramod Raman Editor of Media One, and the first news anchor in Malayalam, who started his television career with Asianet News.
“For any media, it is important to uphold the highest standards of ethics and integrity in their work, and to avoid any practices that could be considered unfair or misleading,” Pramod told The Federal.
Clash of wasps and ‘mapras’
The entire episode has only amplified the tussle between the mainstream media and the cyber warriors of the CPI(M).
In the past, a number of Malayalam journalists, particularly those who work for television channels, have been targeted by the wasps, a moniker given by veteran Congress leader Mullappally Ramachandran, which the cyber comrades did happily accept. They, in return, disdainfully call the journalists ‘mapras’, an acronym derived from the term Madhyama Pravarthakar, (media activists), the Malayalam word for journalists.
“These CPI(M) trolls are no different from the BJP IT cell foot soldiers at the national scene. They would go to any extent to malign your credibility, including slut shaming women journalists,” a TV reporter who did not wish to be named told The Federal.
On the other hand, the CPI(M) cyber warriors maintain that they are fighting a just cause against the ‘right-wing media’. “We cannot be compared with the Hindutva trolls. They are furthering the false narratives of the ‘Godi media’, against all the secular voices in the country. Here in Kerala, we are fighting a multi-pronged disinformation campaign led by the legacy media and the right-wing trolls, so we are effectively the people’s fact checkers,” claimed an active ‘wasp’ based in one of the GCC countries.
Also read: Kerala CM a ‘Modi in dhoti’: LoP Satheesan
Even though Asianet News has not officially given an explanation for the ‘enactment video,’ the media house has submitted to the Kerala high court, that it had used file visuals in the story in question. Its reporter, Saniyo Manomi, who did the first story on the alleged victim in August, has also given her statement that it was not the original girl who is on the video in question.