Kerala CM Defends Police Action on Asianet Amid Severe Criticism from Opposition

The police carried out a "search" at the TV channel's Kozhikode office on March 5 in response to a complaint filed by a ruling party-backed MLA over an alleged fake news story that was aired in November last year.

New Delhi: Two days after Kerala police conducted a “search” at the Asianet News office in Kozhikode, drawing severe criticism from the opposition in the state, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday, March 7, defended the move.

“The occupation of a person is not a factor while taking legal action against an individual who is involved in a criminal activity. The law does not allow it,” Indian Express quoted Vijayan as saying in the state assembly.

The chief minister was speaking in response to the adjournment motion moved by Congress MLA P.C. Vishnunadh. “The constitution does not differentiate between common people and media persons,” Vijayan said, underlining that the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) do not treat media persons who commit “criminal offences” differently.

Although Vijayan has remained firm on the police action against the popular Malayalam news channel, there have been discordant voices within the ruling Left Democratic Front who are critical of the move.

“It is against freedom of the press. Any action or case that hurts freedom of the press should be avoided,” the IE report quoted Communist Party of India (CPI) assistant secretary Prakash Babu as saying.

Babu, however, clarified that it was his “personal opinion”, as the alliance parties of the LDF are yet to officially voice their opinion on the developments. “It is up to the party’s central leadership to decide the stand on the issue,” Babu added.

On Sunday, March 5, policemen carried out a “search” at the news channel two days after the activists of the student wing of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) – the Student Federation of India (SFI) – barged into the Kochi office of the news channel and intimidated the staff over an alleged fake news report. The SFI activists said the channel is a “disgrace to the state”. The police later arrested six workers of the SFI.

Both the Congress and the BJP condemned the move, calling it “a sign of intolerance” and “an example of the fascist approach” of the Vijayan’s government, according to Hindustan Times.

The Congress drew a parallel between the search at the Asianet office and the Income Tax department’s “searches” at the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala likened Vijayan to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in “silencing critics”.

“The party always talks big about media freedom and condemned the raid on BBC last week in the strongest terms. But this is worse than the BBC raid. Pinarayi Vijayan has turned into another Modi by silencing his critics,” said Chennithala, leader of the opposition in the state assembly.

BJP state president K. Surendran said, “Police action reminds us of emergency days. This is another instance of growing fascist tendencies in the state.”

Hitting out at the Kerala government, Asianet News in a tweet said, “Days after SFI hooliganism, Kerala Police conducts ‘search’ at Asianet News Kozhikode office. Regardless, Asianet News continues to report, true to its motto: Straight. Bold. Relentless. #AttackOnMedia #PressFreedom #AsianetNewsAttacked.”

Police at Asianet News office in Kozhikode. Photo: Twitter/@AsianetNewsEN.

Meanwhile, the police maintained that the “search” was carried out as part of an investigation into a complaint filed by CPI(M)-backed legislator P.V. Anwar, who alleged that the media house had telecast a fake interview as part of its series titled “Narcotic is a dirty business’’ in November 2022.

‘Controversial’ news report

The video report series, according to the stated objective of the channel, was aimed at curbing the drug menace in the state.

On November 10, 2022, the channel aired an interview with a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Kannur, who was allegedly abused after being forced to use synthetic drugs. The girl told Asianet that more than 10 girls were “trapped” by the drug mafia.

However, there is a controversy over the girl’s version, and the same girl is said to have been interviewed twice. In the first story telecast on August 10, 2022, a woman reporter spoke to a minor victim of drugs, who apparently had a male-like voice. The second video report, aired on November 4, 2022, allegedly with the same person had a female-like voice. But, on both occasions, the victim was narrating the same incidents and trauma, according to Indian Express.

The complainant in the case, MLA Anwar, called the interview “fake” and said it was shot with another girl. However, Hindustan Times reported that the girl’s parents stood by her version, maintaining that the channel’s correspondent did a detailed interview with her. “Whatever my daughter said in the interview is correct,” the HT report quoted the girl’s father as saying. The girl’s father also added that she has “revealed the truth to protect other girls”.

Asianet has so far not officially responded to the allegation. However, it put another story defending its previous reports and spoke to the girl’s father, who backed her claims.

Meanwhile, the police booked three journalists of the channel, executive editor Sindhu Suryakumar, regional editor Shajahan Kaliyath, and Kannur reporter Noufal Bin Yousaf. They have been booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Since the controversy emerged, ruling CPI (M) and its affiliate outfits, particularly the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), stepped up protests against “the criminal journalism’’ of the channel.

For some time now, there has been an uneasy relationship between the ruling CPI (M) and Asianet. The ruling party had also issued a directive to party representatives not to participate in the debates conducted by the channel. Union minister of state and BJP MP from the state, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, has an investment stake in Asianet.