This week opened another front for the free speech debate in the country. Earlier in the week, the CBI froze the accounts of Sakshi newspaper and Sakshi TV as part of its ongoing investigation into the wealth amassed by YS Jaganmohan Reddy during his father YS Rajasekhar Reddy’s tenure as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. This was followed up by seizure of files from the Information and Public Relations office of the Government of Andhra Pradesh, and suspension of all advertising from state government and other state administered organizations of Andhra Pradesh.
Immediately, there were protests by journalists against the CBI’s actions, calling it a threat to freedom of speech. There are several thousand jobs at stake according to some reports. Sakshi newspaper and Sakshi TV, even after the tragic demise of YS Rajasekhar Reddy, have maintained a strong presence in the Telugu media market, presenting a strong alternative to the Eenadu house. The rivalry between the two media empires has been bitter and sometimes downright demeaning in its viciousness. Both the houses have openly espoused the cause of one political entity or the other, shielded friends and relatives when it came to corruption and nepotism cases, promoted ‘friendly’ politicians with equal brazenness. Partisan journalism has become the norm, with Andhra Jyothi playing second fiddle to Eenadu.
From the day of the swearing-in of YSR, Eenadu house was hounding the Congress government, so much so that both the father YSR and son YS Jagan openly admitted starting the newspaper and the TV channel primarily to counter the propaganda juggernaut of Eenadu house. And from the day of launch of Sakshi, Eenadu was unsparing in its vitriol towards the paper and the Congress party.
It was during this vicious spat that for the first time Telugu newspaper readers came to know the (well-researched)inside stories of both the media houses, as much dirty linen got washed on the newspaper columns. Some unsavoury business practices of Eenadu’s sister companies like Margadarsi Financiers and Margadarsi Chit Funds came under the scanner of investigative agencies and regulators like the RBI. The raids on the companies, which were the source of the deep pockets of Eenadu, resulted in serious trouble for the group. The group was helped out by generous investments from Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance group, which was denied vehemently earlier on but became public recently through Reliance’s own announcement.
Both the media houses (Sakshi and Eenadu) are creatures of political and economic ambitions. Both the houses have had serious problems with the way their operations have been financed. More importantly, both the organizations have seriously undermined the ethical practice of journalism through their blatant partisanship and lack of balance. Sadly, both the papers have some of the best journalistic talent working for them but misused and made to pick up the chestnuts from the fire for their bosses.
How does the rest of the journalist fraternity see this entire saga? While most papers have carried the news on their front page this time with more stories on inside pages about protests by senior journalists against freezing the accounts of Sakshi, Eenadu and Andhra Jyothi have not carried any of the protest stories in their broadsheets. This not carrying news ‘we dislike’ is a common practice for even papers like The Hindu and others.
During the time when Eenadu was facing investigations into its Chit Fund and Financier company affairs, both Mr N Ram and Mr Kuldip Nayar impleaded themselves into the case saying that it is an issue of freedom of speech as the government was attempting to punish Eenadu by attacking its other businesses. Mr N Ram also attempted to mobilise nationwide support for Eenadu from INS and the Delhi media. However, when Reliance announced Eenadu/TV18 deal, one of the biggest media acquisitions by any yardstick in India, The Hindu buried the news on page 11 and Prajashakthi, the CPM party organ, did not carry it at all.
This time around, in a similar situation, Mr Kuldip Nayar has spoken against freezing the accounts of Sakshi along with others in the journalistic fraternity. No word yet from The Hindu.
The tough competition a media house can give to powerful rivals is salutary for both. The spirit of innovation, the excitement of coming up with a better product in the end is enriching for the journalists as well. Till YSR’s death, Sakshi was emerging as a strong alternative and competitor for Eenadu, with some excellent journalism and great programming on Sakshi TV. YSR’s death has derailed the channel into an ongoing dirge for the departed leader, in an attempt by the son to keep his father’s memory alive and to derive political dividends from it. While orchestrating Jagan’s ambitions, the channel and the paper also indulged in frontal attacks on the Gandhi family and Congress politics in Andhra Pradesh. Initially, the Congress cadre went into shock when Sakshi launched worse attacks on their party than those by Eenadu or Andhra Jyothi. In the initial days of the paper, Sakshi was aggressively pushed and marketed by the same cadre.
Unfortunately for Sakshi, it is too young. It does not have the first mover advantage or the complex web of support that Eenadu built up for itself over the years across the spectrum from N Ram, Kuldip Nayar, BJP, CPM to Reliance and other national political and industrial families. Unfortunately again, Jagan has made the mistake of taking on too many forces at the same time. By alienating Congress high command, he has no friends in the political structure who wield real power and who can bail him out.
Whatever the outcome of this issue, the presence of an alternative voice like Sakshi, despite its navel gazing, concentration on Jagan and deification of YSR, is important for the information market in Telugu. Without Sakshi, an economically strong player, the information monopoly that existed before its advent is likely to return. With the advent of Sakshi, experienced Telugu journalists saw respectable salaries for the first time. While we debate about free speech, a large number of media jobs are at stake.
Whatever happens to Jagan, should his prosecution under the law for other alleged misdeeds visit his media operations? Why is the CBI freezing the media house’s a bank accounts just before the election season when alternative viewpoints are not just necessary but essential? Why not his other businesses? Why is the beleaguered state Congress government stopping advertisements to the paper completely now after showing generosity for the last four years? The war between Sakshi and Eenadu has proven to be a true war of attrition – while the first round crippled Eenadu seriously, this round is threatening to disable Sakshi.