Tamil Nadu BJP president K Annamalai’s decision to block out journalists from asking questions after releasing a dossier of documents named ‘DMK files‘ has irked the journalist community. “I apologise to the journalists (for not allowing them to raise questions),” Annamalai said in his ‘monologue’ press meet in which claimed Rs 2 lakh crore worth assets of DMK leaders are being put in the public domain.
Even though the BJP leader said he can take up questions after a week or so once journalists go through the dossier, the media fraternity is aghast that their primary role of raising questions at press conferences is being denied to them.
It is the prerogative of the journalist and not the person conducting the press conference to decide whether they require 10 minutes or 10 days to decrypt a document, said AS Panneerselvan, a former Readers’ Editor, The Hindu.
“Journalists have two important roles. One, bearing witness, two making sense (of an event or news); these are bound to be executed simultaneously. Only through raising questions can these roles be executed, making it a fundamental right of a journalist. If a person like Annamalai doesn’t provide journalists the space to question him in goodwill, that too in public domain, then it proves that the person (Annamalai) doesn’t have the maturity needed for public life,” he said.
The press conference was cacophonic, teeming with cadres and leaders of the party who outnumbered journalists. Even before Annamalai could play the video on the release of documents on a giant screen, he pleaded with the cadres to settle down. “Don’t disturb the feed of the press. Don’t spoil the footage,” Annamalai was obviously keen on coverage.
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The presence of tens and hundreds of party activists for a ‘press meet’ is a recent trend that journalists have to live within Tamil Nadu, lamented a senior journalist. “It is more so if it is conducted by the BJP,” he said. Many parties and political leaders have diluted the role of journalists and press meets over time, said Peer Mohamed, a senior journalist and founder of news portal Ippodhu. “In most media conferences in Tamil Nadu, some leaders are trying to mimic the authoritarian style of the BJP leadership at the Centre,” he said.
“The governance style of the present BJP top brass is authoritarian in nature. It leads to the shutting down of civil society and free press. It is the democratic duty of the civil society and the media to resist such a trend,” he told The Federal.
Journalists say that it all started with the press conferences of leaders like Vijayakanth who make it a practice to include party cadres apart from leaders while addressing the press. Some press meets would turn raucous. This is against freedom of press and the right to gather news which is part of freedom of speech, said V Manimaran, General Secretary, Madras Union of Journalists (MUJ).
“India has slid to 146th position in the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters without Borders. India is placed lower than Bangladesh. These are symptoms of the rot eating into the democratic ethos,” he said.
“In usual press meets, you (journalists) ask me questions. But today it’s my turn to raise questions,” Annamalai said audaciously even as he thanked ‘journalists’ who he said were going to take his message to crores of people via ‘social media’.
An unimpressed Pannerselvan said what was happening was not just a threat to journalists or mainstream journalism but a threat to democracy. He told The Federal: “Shooting the messenger is not new. But in the era of social media, a whole lot of people have taken it in their hands… How the abusive terminology ‘presstitute’ is being widely used after 2010 to denigrate journalists is a matter of concern.”
In October last year, Annamalai called journalists monkeys when they tried to raise questions in Cuddalore. He justified his abuse by claiming that he asked “why reporters are jumping like monkeys”. He refused to apologise.
Annamalai may have concerns that he may find it difficult to answer the questions, said Pannerselvam. “What if he is asked whether he is doing such activities (releasing DMK files) just for headline management? Or how will he respond if he is asked whether it is a ploy to divert issues from the Adani scam and other controversies? It has more to do with lack of transparency in the BJP as a party. It is getting reflected in the behaviour of the party’s state unit head refusing the right to journalists to raise questions,” he said.
DMK has already accused Annamalai of trying to divert attention from the Rs 2,400 crore Arudhra Gold Trading scam. Several former and present BJP leaders are accused in the scandal, where depositors were allegedly duped by assuring high interests.
“Probably, he (Annamalai) is not sure or confident about the documents revealed (about DMK) too. Maybe, he (Annamalai) needs 10 days to explain it,” Pannerselvam said.
The press conference was necessitated by the storm over a costly Rafael watch he wore. After Annamalai revealed about the watch last December, he was under pressure to prove it is not a payoff but a genuine buy. He announced he would deliver the receipt by April 14 (today) and expose DMK leaders holding inappropriate assets. But the receipt produced by Annamalai after months of delay has led to more questions. As he finds himself in a difficult spot, he has chosen to shut all options of interaction.
The recent technological advancements have provided political parties to bypass the mainstream media and given politicians confidence that they can survive without them, said Manimaran. “Political parties see IT wings as an easy way to reach the public. So, they think they are free from answering the questions of mainstream media (if they are able to tap the potential of social media). It is getting reflected in the way they treat journalists,” he said.
Journalists who have been keenly following BJP’s state president say his behaviour is more to do with his insecurities. Annamalai and a few other leaders are accused of being surrounded by a coterie whenever they address the media.
“Leaders who have the support of the public don’t need the support of cadres when addressing the press. Such props are needed when they don’t have a mass appeal. BJP leaders like Advani or Vajpayee or DMK leader Kalaignar never encouraged such activities… Annamalai is slamming others to build himself. It is because of his own hollowness,” Panneerselvam added.