Kerala's model of media regulation

BY MUHAMMED SABITH| IN Media Business | 26/09/2013
The issue of banning advertisements to 'Thejas' by the Kerala government is a serious issue pertaining to press freedom and pluralist media and should be discussed as such,
says MUHAMMED SABITH

As the debate over the nature of the media regulation widens in the country, Kerala state government has been showing for last three years a unique model. A model that can be even 'followed' by the Centre that is now seriously considering to bring the press under its control on the pretext of improving the quality of the fourth estate by setting minimum qualifications for the journalists and issuing license to practice this heterogeneous profession.

Thejas, a Malayalam language daily headquartered in Kozhikode, edited by veteran journalist N.P. Chekkutty and run by a trust connected with Popular Front of India, a Muslim organisation, has been denied state government advertising for last three years. Successive governments here -- the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) during its last year in power and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) ever since they came into power in 2011,  have been denying advertising put out by the Public Relations Department, which have become the life blood for small newspapers to survive, to this newspaper on the grounds of a 'very secret report' by the state intelligence department.

It all began during the last year of the previous LDF government that the newspaper began to face discrimination:  the state Information & Public Relations Department suddenly stopped the government advertisements being distributed to the newspaper. The loss was high for the newspaper as it was a period when blizzard of government advertisements were released to the media. It was a hard blow to the newspaper which, like any other small level newspaper, expects around 30 to 40 per cent of its advertising revenue to come from the government. "It was timed to hit the paper hard and we did receive a hard knock -- our revenues suffered and we were barely able to pay our salaries to the staff and make payments to our writers", says Chekkutty. 

A year later, the Congress-led UDF formed the government but continued the policy of denying advertising to Thejas. When CM Oommen Chandy convened an editors' meet during the initial days of his tenure, the newspaper brought the issue to his attention. The Chief Minister agreed to restore the advertisements, asking the newspaper in return to withdraw a case it had filed in the high court in that regard. The newspaper agreed to withdraw the case and did so, but the ban resumed after few months! 

"Government wants to destroy newspaper, not to solve issue"

Chekkutty points out that while it was a political decision during the LDF rule to deny the advertisements to the daily, the UDF government was blindly relying upon some "highly communalised" segments in the security establishment who were "regularly sending out letters to the [state] home department as well as to the DAVP" against the paper. Those so-called 'very secret intelligence' reports are not available to the newspaper or to anyone else to review. This secrecy in fact denies the newspaper their genuine and fundamental right to be heard. The newspaper was denied any opportunity to articulate their stand as it was neither informed about the content of the 'reports' nor asked to give an explanation over the matter. "They simply refuse to even hear us", lamented Chekkutty.

After its continuous but fruitless efforts to reinstate the government advertisements, Thejas on September 15 reached out to its readers with a front page editorial titled, "Three years of injustice", in which it said "the approach adopted by both previous LDF govternment and present UDF govternment to the newspaper for last three years is nothing but painful", explaining how the daily was systematically targeted by the successive governments in Thiruvananthapuram.

One could genuinely get curious to know the nature of the 'report' that is strong enough to prevent a democratic government from acting to ensure all the voices in the polity are properly heard. What is more curious is the lukewarm response of the government to the newspaper's demand to conduct an open enquiry to legally prove the validity of the 'report'. Chekkutty said this shows that "they (the government) are determined to destroy the newspaper", rather than sorting out the problem. "We refuse to submit ourselves to this bullying tactics and we have decided to continue our struggles for our democratic rights--as equal citizens in the country".

Highly placed officials at both Information and Public Relations Department and Home Department declined to comment on the issue through phone and hung up when contacted. But another PRD official admitted the existence of the ad 'restrictions' against Thejas but said he is not authorised to make further comment on the issue as it is related to the 'policy matter' of the department. 

I also failed to get the government's stand on this issue through email as my emails to various official email accounts requesting for comment remain unanswered even after five working days. 

Issue of media pluralism
 
The present issue of discrimination against Thejas, one could argue, has to be discussed in larger dimension. Kerala is known for, among many other things, the pluralist nature its media has. The Muslim representation in the media is better in Kerala comparing to other parts of the country. This was achieved as various Muslim organisations themselves took initiatives to mark the community's presence in the fourth estate, ensuring pluralism on the news desks. Following Chandrika, the mouthpiece of Indian Union Muslim League in Malayalam, the major step in this direction was Madhyamam, launched by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. Thejas, run by a trust linked to another Muslim organisation Popular Front of India, has been relatively new but largely identical with its predecessors, targeting mainly the large Muslim populace located in the northern districts of the state.

The Thejas editorial also hinted that certain content of the newspaper, including its critical writing on "pro-US and pro-Israel policies of the centre", was influential in turning the government hostile towards the daily.

There is, though unofficial, an argument that Thejas is targeted because of its link with Popular Front of India, making it imperative not to exclude the organisation from the discussion. Popular Front of India is a registered organisation with tens of thousands of members active in public in different parts of the country. Along with its many social welfare programmes some of its members are also charged with criminal cases. But some cases like infamous Moovattupuzha hand chopping and Narath incident were given more media attention than others, with the mainstream media discourse preoccupied with the 'terror' element in the cases. But that media hype has not yet been proven legally. Moreover, precisely, on the alleged 'terror' links of PFI, an honourable Supreme Court bench comprising Justice Markadey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra on January 3, 2011, said "… there is no evidence as yet to prove that the Popular Front of India is a terrorist organisation, and hence the respondent cannot be penalized merely for belonging to the PFI …", rejecting Kerala government's appeal against a Kerala High Court order granting bail to Dr. Raneef, a dental surgeon and a PFI activist, in connection with the above mentioned 'hand chopping' case. There were however local clashes reported between members of PFI and other parties like CPI(M) and these inter party clashes are, one could easily understand, were very much part of Kerala public life especially in the northern districts.

This present issue of banning advertisements is therefore truly a serious issue pertaining to press freedom and pluralist media and should be discussed as such. We as a democracy would have to pay a high price as this type of elusive discrimination could severely hit the overall functioning of small level newspapers and thus the concept of inclusive and pluralist democracy and its pillars.

The Thejas editorial points out that the government's denial of its advertisements to the newspaper would damage the newspaper's efforts to empower the underprivileged groups who have lesser representation in the media in the country. "This newspaper made efforts in the last seven years to empower the socially and economically backward sections including minorities and dalits and to make their voice clearly heard in the democratic set up", it said. "We also made conscious efforts to nurture a generation of good journalists from these social groups who have very limited presence in the media which is controlled in India by the elite class."

(Muhammed Sabith is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at sabith.muhemmad@gmail.com)
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