On a warm sticky evening in the heat of general election campaign fever in 2014, a bunch of journalists were waiting outside the residence of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi. As he was wheeled out, waiting journalists began to shout out questions at the octogenarian politician about his party’s stand on the prime ministerial candidate of the Bhartiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi. As he was beginning to answer, he was rudely interrupted by a young reporter, asking him what he had to tell the people of Tamil Nadu about corruption “institutionalised” by the DMK while in power. Karunanidhi, ever the veteran, paused, looked at the reporter, simply muttered the words “Jaya TV” and went on to answer questions posed by other reporters, despite a fair amount of heckling by the young reporter.
The questioner, was in fact, an employee of Jaya TV, a mouthpiece of the rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which went on to sweep 37 out of 39 parliamentary seats in Tamil Nadu that summer.
On December 27 though, another politician, leader of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, Vijaykanth, reacted explosively to an innocuous question posed by a young journalist employed with a Tamil news channel.
“Reporter: Do you think the AIADMK will come to power in 2016?
Vijaykanth: The AIADMK will not come to power in 2016. Enough? Can you go and ask this same question to Jayalalithaa? You will never ask her this. Are you journalists? (spits)”
A day later in Thanjavur, the DMDK’s member of Legislative Assembly B Parthasarathy stated that he would resign as MLA and not hesitate to indulge in violence against some publications that were criticising his party leader Vijaykanth. “Dinamalar newspaper and Kumudam magazine have been repeatedly writing against Captain,” he said.
This is not the first time Vijaykanth, also known as Captain, has vented his ire on the media and journalists at large. In April 2015, at a press meet convened by him in New Delhi, Vijaykanth lost his cool and threatened to throw a microphone at a reporter representing Jaya TV. “Thooki adichiduven, paarthukka,” he warned the reporter, meaning that he would hit him if he wasn’t careful. The reporter had asked Vijaykanth to respond to criticism of his failing to do his duties as an Opposition leader.
“Vijaykanth spitting at journalists cannot be justified in any way,” said P Thirumavelan, Editor of popular Tamil magazine Junior Vikatan. “As far as Tamil society is concerned, spitting is a very derogatory and insulting act. He should not have done that no matter what the provocation. No one can question the right of journalists to ask questions. It is a right granted to us journalists as part of our profession. He is the Opposition leader in the state and the press has the right to question him. Tamil Nadu is a state which has questioned the concept of God itself,” he said.
While journalists have reacted angrily to Vijaykanth’s act of spitting, senior journalists feel that his criticism of the media itself is not entirely wrong.
“Almost every publication and channel has a clear political agenda in this state,” said Kavitha Muralidharan, senior journalist. “This is a very bad thing for journalism. It has led to erosion of ethics and journalistic values in Tamil Nadu. But what Vijaykanth did cannot be pardoned. He doesn’t understand the media politics and he targets individual journalists, when he should actually target the management. Journalists have to do what the management says. It is a pathetic situation for journalists here with the kind of managements that we have in Tamil Nadu,” she pointed out.
Every political party in Tamil Nadu has its own news channel and publication. Whether it is the AIADMK’s mouthpiece Jaya TV and Namadhu MGR, the DMK’s Kalaignar TV and Murasoli or the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s Makkal TV, political agendas of these media are clear. “We are given precise questions by our newsroom heads and editors before we head out to press conferences of rival parties,” said a reporter with Kalaignar TV on condition of anonymity. “We are given very clear instructions, especially during election campaigns on what kind of visuals we need to shoot, what kind of questions we need to ask. The idea is to provoke the rival politicians into making a mistake so we can show them in a bad light,” he said. The same is true of reporters belonging to other politically affiliated channels and publications.
Time for introspection
Former Editor of The Hindu, N Ram feels that it is a bad trend that does not augur well for journalism in Tamil Nadu. “These so-called journalists are acting provocative, trying to stir things up and it is hard to prevent them,” he said. “It certainly disturbs journalism in the state. They come with an intention. What can you do especially if they are accredited representatives of publications?”
He adds that politicians should maintain their cool when faced with such situations. “Vijaykanth shouldn’t get provoked,” said Ram. “He should not do things like spitting at them. So-called journalists are preying on this, on a well-known weakness that he has a short fuse and is volatile, so some people exploit this weakness. I wouldn’t call it corrupt journalism but it is exploitative journalism. We can’t prevent it.”
Journalists in the state feel that the time has come for introspection and change from within the industry, in an atmosphere charged with political leanings and agendas. They feel that there is an urgent need to bring back neutrality and ethics into the profession.
“I feel it is essential for young journalists in the state to undergo training on ethics and how to question politicians,” said M Mathivanan, senior journalist and former Editor of Jaya TV. “They should be taught what neutrality is. Journalists should stop referring to political leaders as Kalaignar or Amma or Captain. We need to bring in professionalism and ethics into the profession,” he said.
Another senior journalist with a popular Tamil news channel did not want to be named but agreed emphatically. “In this Vijaykanth spitting episode, what has become clear is that there is an erosion of trust in journalists, not just amongst politicians but from the people at large,” he said. “On social media there is an outpouring of support for what Vijaykanth said about the media’s conduct, not for his act of spitting. The people feel journalists are not doing their job and I think we should all take this seriously and act upon it,” he said.
Thirumavelan of Junior Vikatan says there is a need to introspect about the functioning of publications and news channels. “Let me give you an example – during Chennai floods, for instance, one Tamil newspaper wrote stating that Jayalalithaa has “thanniyil raasi” meaning that she is a lucky mascot for the rains. Another wrote that she acted like an Army general. Hardly anyone questioned why the floods happened or why so much water was released from the Chembarambakkam reservoir. The people know the reality. Many publications work in favour of whichever party is in power. I think journalists need to work according to their conscience. This is not a profession like any other,” he said.
While most in the profession feel helpless at agendas set by the managements of media houses in the state, they feel the only solution to bring out the reality is through the online medium. “Online journalism and social media is becoming a solution,” said senior journalist Kavitha Muralidharan. “We can use social media to put the truth out there. It is reaching people in a big way and it is difficult to keep cheating people any longer. They are not ignorant as many managements would like to believe. There has to be a course correction,” she said.
Until the course correction does indeed take place, politicians, police and government officials are likely to continue treating journalists with disrespect bordering on contempt. Seasoned politicians like AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa rarely interact with the media and during her regime, even government officials are discouraged from sharing information with journalists. The rival DMK is not much better – at one press briefing, an incensed DMK chief Karunanidhi shouted at a journalist asking whether the journalist wanted to kill him. The DMK’s heir apparent MK Stalin too preferred to avoid journalists until recently and even now prefers to allow one-on-one interviews only if questions are provided beforehand. The PMK’s Chief Ministerial hopeful Anbumani Ramadoss has lashed out a few times at publications and journalists, labelling them as being pro-DMK or pro-AIADMK, when faced with tough questions. In the end, it is the journalist and journalism that suffers in this process of politicisation.