When the Chief Minister Is Also a Media Owner

Chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao's family is associated with two newspapers and a TV channel. Since his party formed the government, these media houses have been receiving disproportionate amount of government advertisements.

If the newspapers and television channels run by a chief minister’s family receive overwhelming advertising support from the state, should we describe it as a conflict of interest, or corruption, or abuse of power?

K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the chief minister of Telangana, launched Namasthe Telangana in June 2011 at the height of the separate statehood movement. His son, K.T. Rama Rao, was on the initial board of the Telangana Publications Private Limited, a position he quit after becoming a minister in the state cabinet. His wife, Shailini Kalvakuntla, along with Damodar Rao Divakonda is now on the board. Another paper, Telangana Today, launched in 2016, is also run by Telangana Publications Private Limited.

TNews was started by K. Chandrasekhar Rao, with Damodar Rao Divakonda, Gandra Mohan Rao, Santhosh Kumar Joginipally, on the board registered on January 12, 2010. He has since resigned from the board after becoming the chief minister but Damodar Rao Divakonda, Gandra Mohan Rao and Joginpally Rohini are now on the board. In public perception also it is seen as the chief minister’s channel.

The response of the Information and Public Relations Department of the Government of Telangana to an RTI application seeking details of ad expenditure reveals some interesting facts about the way the Telangana state is being run under the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government. The list below has omitted newspapers from Delhi etc. that no longer receive any ads from the government, therefore the omitted serial numbers.

This information obtained under RTI shows that both the newspapers run by the family of the chief minister have seen a sharp growth in advertising receipts from the state government. Namasthe Telangana has shown an increase of 387.4% from 2016 to 2018.  Telangana Today, the English newspaper, has seen an increase of 1749.2%. There is a big percentage increase in the case of Namasthe Telangana, starting from a very high base to begin with compared to the others.

Among the Telugu papers, Andhra Jyothi has seen an increase of 296.8%, from Rs 45.6 lakh in 2016 to Rs 1.8 crore in 2018, which is a bit mystifying. Andhra Jyothi is owned by Vemuri Radha Krishna. He is believed to have a long association with the chief minister of Telangana when KCR was a Telugu Desam Party legislator. However, when Telangana state was formed, there was a brief falling out between them when cable operators boycotted ABN Andhra Jyothi channel for the anti-Telangana slant in its programmes and Radhakrishna blamed KCR for curbing free speech in Telangana. In public perception, both the paper and the channel, ABN Andhra Jyothi, are pro-Telugu Desam Party, headed by Chandrababu Naidu.

Andhra Bhoomi saw an increase of 1148.7% in the advertising given in 2017-18 over the previous year, but starting from a low base in 2016 of Rs 88,000 to Rs 11 lakh in 2018. The owner of Deccan Chronicle Holdings Limited Tikkavarapu Venkatram Reddy, which runs both Deccan Chronicle and Andhra Bhoomi, was a Congress MP. Deccan Chronicle group has withstood severe challenges to both its internal stability and to its market share. The group papers are an important presence in the political space in Telangana. The relatively smaller Telugu newspaper Andhra Bhoomi received marginally more ads while Deccan Chronicle took a 30% cut. Still, Deccan Chronicle remains the second highest in ad receipts from the government, after Telangana Today, among the English papers with Telangana/Hyderabad editions.

Nava Telangana, a paper run by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has seen a cut of 67.5%, from Rs 17.9 lakh to Rs 5.8 lakh. Mana Telangana, edited by K. Srinivas Reddy, the former editor of Visalandhra (Communist Party of India), faced a reduction of 88.2%, from Rs 47.8 lakh to Rs 5.7 lakhs. Srinivas Reddy has since resigned.

All the other papers have faced cuts ranging from 2% to 94%. All the papers in Hindi, Urdu and English have faced a secular cut across the board. Among the English papers, all except one have taken a reduction, ranging from 6% to 36%. Interestingly, even as the national Indian Express got a 725% (Table 2) increase starting from a low base of Rs 40,ooo in 2016 to Rs 3.6 lakh in 2018, advertising for the local New Indian Express (Table 1) was reduced by 29%.

Advertising to the  Economic Times, which has a Hyderabad edition, is reduced by 92%, while The Indian Express has received an increase of 725%. The other three national papers without Hyderabad editions have not been allocated any advertising.

None of this explains the rise in receipts of Namasthe Telangana from Rs 2.6 crore in 2016 to Rs 12.8 crore (387.4%) and the increase to Telangana Today from Rs 4.7 lakh in 2016 to Rs 87.3 lakh (1749.2%) in 2018. Neither Telangana Today nor Namasthe Telangana is certified to be the highest circulated papers in Telangana.

Even if the government wishes to say that it is implementing some unannounced austerity measure, the people of Telangana would like to know why some papers have not only been exempt from it but instead saw a sharp increase in their earnings from government advertising.

A similar scenario seems to prevail in the television sector. A random check with the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India website shows that among the entertainment channels, STAR Maa, Zee Telugu, ETV Telugu, Gemini TV and Gemini lead on most weeks in terms of viewership/TRP. Among the news channels, it is TV9, NTV, V6, TV5 and TNews leading, in that order.

Both in terms of revenue earnings and the number of spots TNews leads the board.

The channel which occupies second place, V6, is promoted by a TRS legislator and industrialist (Visakha Industries Limited), Vivekanand Gaddam. In Telangana, much has been written about people from various political persuasions and direct political affiliations owning newspapers and television channels.

If ETV news channels listed separately here are taken together, the group’s advertising amounts to Rs 159.3 lakh. TV9 group, including TV9 and TV1, received Rs 166 lakh. That places them second and third in receipts, after TNews.

Eenadu has a record of challenging irregularities in advertising allocations; once against the Channa Reddy government, and again during Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy’s tenure.

The first case challenged the GO that made the Department of Information and Public Relations of the government of the then Andhra Pradesh the nodal agency for releasing ads saying that the GO violates the right to free speech under Article 19(1)a and Article 14 of the Constitution as it places discretion in the hands of a single agency, potentially depriving newspapers of advertising and therefore their ability to reach a larger public.

Though the judgment in the case sets aside the claim of a violation under Article 19(1)a, citing the attorney general’s views, it argues that the GO violates Article 14 of the Constitution: “In the course of its administration the government realises revenue amounting to crores of rupees. The government which derives these amounts from people is bound to use it for the benefit of the people without any discrimination … It should not use the large sums in its hands either to favour an individual or a particular group of individuals or refuse to make those funds available on illegitimate grounds …

The purpose of issuing advertisements is to educate the public about the activities of the government, to promote its policies, and in cases where the government or government companies are carrying on business or trade, to advertise its wares. It is not expected of the government to exercise this power in order to favour one set of newspapers or to show its displeasure against another section of the press. It should not use the power over such large funds in its hands to muzzle the press or as a weapon to punish newspapers which criticise its policies and actions. It has to use the funds in a reasonable manner consistent with the object of the advertisement viz. to educate and inform the public about the activities of the government.”

Though the petition was dismissed, the Court order ruled in detail the need for specific criteria based on which the ads are given out. The judgment recognises that though “circulation must be the sole criterion for the advertisement as the object of the government is to reach the maximum number of readers. But at the same time, it cannot be ignored that if circulation is the only criterion, the smaller newspapers will be completely denied all government advertisements. It is also the petitioners’ case that advertisement is one of the important sources of revenue for a newspaper. If this source is denied, all the smaller newspapers will be wiped out of existence resulting in the monopoly of a few newspapers only.”

But the allocation of advertising largesse in a seemingly arbitrary manner in this instance points to two kinds of problems. Both serious.

The most obvious reading is that public money is being transferred to favour enterprises directly connected to one’s own family or enterprises with close political affiliations. In other words, a serious case of conflict of interest, abuse of public trust and nepotism.

The less obvious issue is the process of systematic starvation of diversity of opinion through the arbitrary allocation of advertising, giving support to voices friendly to the government and starving the others.

Padmaja Shaw is a media analyst and a former professor of communication at Osmania University.

This article was originally published in The Hoot. Read the article here.