The fragility of the Indian media under the control freaks of the modern Bharatiya Janata Party has attracted critical scrutiny following their surgical strike on NDTV. But it is high time the national media took greater notice of the Congress dispensation of Siddaramaiah in Karnataka.
In general, no party or politician likes the media except when it suits them (not that we are looking for love). But the Congress’ record is particularly dismal, almost abysmal.
It was, after all, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who introduced press censorship under the Emergency in 1975, and her son Rajiv Gandhi who moved the Defamation Bill in 1989. And the number of interviews Congress president Sonia Gandhi has given can be written on a quarter of a sesame seed.
But under the “socialist” Siddaramaiah’s watch, the relationship of the legislature and the executive with the media has nosedived, with that great pillar of democracy, the judiciary, lending a helping hand.
Since the Congress came to power in Karnataka in 2013, TV stations have been blacked out, the police, citing court orders, have imposed gag orders on the reporting or telecast of incidents of crime, the home minister has gagged the police, and the education minister has gagged teachers.
All that pales in comparison to the pressure on the media from the legislature, with Assembly Speaker KB Koliwad emerging as a central, even polarising, figure in a frontal assault on the media.
In March, Koliwad announced the formation of a House committee to frame rules and regulations for the news media to prevent them from sensationalising family disputes, crimes and ghost stories to increase TRPs (television rating point).
This week, he instructed the police to arrest the editors of two Kannada tabloids, if they failed to surrender, for publishing articles deemed defamatory by the House Privileges’ Committee.
However, in the first case, MLAs appointed to the committee backed off from the slippery path the Speaker wanted them to take, following a media furore. In the second instance, surely there is a whiff of conflict in Koliwad, as the speaker, pronouncing a verdict in 2017 on a complaint filed by him, as an MLA, in 2014? If Ravi Belagere and Anil Raju, the two editors sentenced to a year in jail each by Koliwad, defamed the speaker and his legislator colleagues, it is a matter for the courts to decide, on merit, not for the House Privileges Committee, where the game is per se loaded to put the accused on the mat.
But one year in jail for refusing to appear before the House Privileges’ Committee?
Was the committee even aware of Belagere’s physical condition?
A couple of questions deserve answers. What is the Privileges’ Committee’s jurisdiction in taking up an “offence” that took place outside the House? Can every journalistic investigation thus be blocked by an MP or MLA citing privilege?
Defend we must
Tabloid editors do not enjoy the best of reputations, and perhaps the reputation of Ravi Belagere, a colourful, controversial, multimedia star, probably our very best wordsmith, comes in the way of journalists rushing to his defence.
But defend, we must.
Not Ravi Belagere the person, but Ravi Belagere the editor. The two are different. You may dislike his publication, dislike its prurient pursuits, dislike its gossip and scandal mongering. You may have heard stories and rumours of his lifestyle, whatever.
None of that matters before the larger principle of justice.
It is no one’s case that the media is beyond scrutiny, accountability or reproach. But what is remarkable in Karnataka is the use of out-of-the-box methods to prevent the message from getting out, or to bring erring media personnel to book.
That we must stand up against and protest.
That said, it is amazing that Siddaramaiah, a smart, earthy politician, should want to rack up so many enemies in the media in an election year because of the actions of the speaker. Either he is unaware or unconcerned – both are sad reflections on him.
And to think he has not one but two media advisors, both former journalists.
Equally disappointing is the fact that the BJP, whose leading lights claim to have cut their political teeth in the Emergency, is silent when the media in Karnataka is being asked not just to crawl but to slip under the carpet. It is complicit in this dastardly game.
At the entrance of the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of power in Karnataka, is the slogan “Government’s Work is God’s Work”. When atheists are at work inside its dark corridors and cubicles, it is only journalism that can throw light.
If it is fettered, it is “We, the People” who are losers.
This article first appeared on Churumuri.