In Jagan's Andhra Pradesh, Media and Journalists In Line of Fire

A spurt in attacks on journalists and curbs on media have sparked concerns that freedom is shrinking.

Vijayawada: On October 14, a journalist working for Andhra Jyothy, a leading Telugu daily, was hacked to death in Tuni of Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. A murder case has been registered against YSR Congress legislator Dadisetti Ramalingeswara Rao, after the journalist, K. Satyanarayana’s family said he was involved.

Some days before Satyanarayana’s death, another reporter working with Visalandhra, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (CPI) was rushed to a hospital in a critical condition after a deadly attack in Srikakulam district. In this attack too, the hand of YSR Congress leaders is suspected.

In late September, journalist Nagarjuna Reddy was attacked with knives and sticks in Ongole district of Andhra Pradesh by unidentified assailants who are suspected to be connected to former MLA Amanchi Krishna Mohan, who is also an YSR Congress member.

In the run-up to Independence Day celebrations in August, Dolendra Prasad, who edited Zameen Rythu, one of the oldest Telugu journals founded in 1930, was subjected to an attack and intimidation in Nellore district. The local MLA of the ruling party, Kotamreddy Sridhar Reddy, was arrested in connection with the assault.

Also Read: Andhra Pradesh: Journalist Hacked to Death

Journalist unions, civil society organisations and opposition parties have linked the series of attacks on journalists to the alleged intolerance of dissent by chief minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. G. Anjaneyulu, the general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Union of Journalists Federation (APUJF), accused the Jagan’s government of having a “hostile attitude” towards the media.

What lends credence to these allegations is the statements Jagan made during his swearing-in on May 30. He branded outlets such as Eenadu/ETV and Andhra Jyothy/ABN TV as “yellow media” (the colour of the opposition Telugu Desam Party). The chief minister said that his government will proceed against these newspapers and TV channels.

Immediately after assuming charge, the government was accused of coercing cable operators into suspending the telecast of ABN and TV5 news channels. A direction issued by the Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) saying that the telecast of these channels should be restored allegedly went unheeded.

Journalists protest the suspension of telecast of ABN and TV5 news channels. Photo: Facebook/APUWJ

Cabinet’s nod

While the series of attacks on journalists provides a window into the hostile atmosphere that mediapersons in Andhra Pradesh work in, another measure taken by the government provides more cause for concern.

To rein in the media, the YSR Congress government, during its meeting on October 16, gave a free hand to the secretaries of government departments to initiate legal proceedings against media outlets which publish “baseless and defamatory” news. Such reportage, the government says, is done with an intention to bring down the morale of the government and hamper development.

Analysts and media organisations fear that the order could be used to stifle freedom of expression or go after journalists who are critical of the government.

Also Read: The Triumphs and Travails of Regional Media

Perplexingly, the Jagan government has appointed half-a-dozen senior journalists, including a former general secretary of the Indian Journalists Union, as advisors. “All of them have failed to prevent Jagan from being hawkish towards the media,” commented Anjaneyulu, the APUWJ general secretary.

Why the war on media?

Incidentally, the cabinet’s decision is a revision of a government order issued in February 2007, when Jagan’s father Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy was the chief minister of the undivided Andhra Pradesh state. YSR as he was popularly known, was forced to keep the GO in cold storage following protests from the media and civil society.

In fact, some see parallels in Jagan’s “bitterness” against the media with the attitude of YSR. The senior Reddy, while in power and in opposition as well, targeted the Eenadu group of publications and its owner Ramoji Rao for the latter’s apparent support to the TDP.

YSR got his follower Undavalli Arun Kumar, a former Congress MP, to wage a war against Ramoji Rao, mainly targeting the Margadarshi Chit Fund Private Limited, the financial backbone of Rao’s business empire. The Rajasekhar Reddy government also attempted to pull down the Ramoji Rao Film City in Hyderabad, claiming that was constructed on land encroached from farmers.

Jaganmohan Reddy’s attitude is seen by many as a continuation of that same precedent. His party barred journalists representing the so-called “yellow media” from attending its programmes. Videos of Jagan resentfully asking reporters of Eenadu and Andhra Jyothy to leave the venues of his media briefings after taking a cup of tea and snacks during his padayatra went viral on social media.

Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy pays tribute to his father Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. Photo: PTI

Jagan, KCR on the same page

In the two Telugu states, print and electronic media is largely polarised along political lines, eclipsing the space for independent media. While some outlets are directly owned by leaders of mainstream parties, others are accused of receiving patronage from a particular political party.

Jaganmohan Reddy himself runs a media empire – newspaper Sakshi and a TV channel with the same name – which acts as a mouthpiece. Eenadu, Andhra Jyothy and their TV channels are said to be backed by TDP’s N. Chandrababu Naidu.

Also Read: Hyderabad: Fresh Case Registered Against Journalist Ravi Prakash, Arrested Again

In Telangana, chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao and his family control Telugu daily Namaste Telangana, English daily Telangana Today and a news channel. His associates Jupalli Rameswara Rao and “Mega” Krishna Reddy took over three leading TV channels – TV9, NTV and TV10.

The politicisation of media in the undivided AP state began with the advent of thespian N.T. Rama Rao into politics. He formed the TDP in 1982 and received significant support from Ramoji Rao’s Eenadu. After NTR was dislodged from power through a coup engineered by then-prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1985, Eenadu again supported him. Thus, Ramoji Rao earned the moniker “kingmaker”.

While Jagan and his Telangana counterpart have formed an unlikely ‘alliance’ during the failed ‘federal front’ experiment, their attitudes towards the media are also well aligned. During his first term, KCR infamously asked the media to “be careful… or else we will bury you 10 kilometres (under the earth)”. Like Jagan, he also imposed an unwritten ban on the TV9 and ABN news channels.

Journalists in Telangana have also been intimidated by the government. Former TV9 CEO Ravi Prakash has been arrested twice over the past fortnight, while another journalist – Revathi Pogadadanda – was arrested in July. While Ravi Prakash’s colleagues claim that he was arrested in retaliation for two interviews which accused KCR and an industrialist of corruption, Pogadadanda said she was harassed by the Telangana state government.

Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao is also accused of having a hostile attitude towards the media. Credit: PTI

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a global non-profit, expressed concern in May over representatives of political parties in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh threatening, attacking and arresting journalists.

S. Veeraiah, editor of Nava Telangana newspaper told The Wire that the media’s independence is increasingly coming under serious threat in both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. “The media’s voice is being stifled in from three directions: Intimidation through draconian laws; political ownership of media outlets; and exercising indirect control through associates who take over media houses,” he said.

Veeraiah says that in Telangana, barring three channels and two newspapers, the media is tightly under KCR’s grip, giving a decent burial to critical reportage. If the recent Andhra Pradesh government is anything to go by, Jagan may soon want the same result.

Gali Nagaraja is a freelance journalist who writes on the two Telugu states.