Puthiya Thalaimurai case: A dangerous and slippery slope for press freedom

Last Updated: Thu, Jun 28, 2018 09:17 hrs

On Monday, The Editors Guild of India issued a statement against the government of Tamil Nadu for registering a FIR against Tamil news channel, Puthiya Thalaimurai. More widely, they criticized the government for forcibly taking channels off the air saying in part, “The Guild’s attention has also been drawn to the recent instances of how several television channels in Tamil Nadu have been arbitrarily taken off the air for periods ranging between a couple of hours and a few days”.

Last week, the Madras High Court granted anticipatory bail to the founder of the television channel, P. Sathyanarayanan. Earlier this month, cases were filed against the Tamil channel and participants of a debate show that was organized by the channel; the topic of discussion was “Are continuous protests for people's basic needs or for political reasons”? The Coimbatore police filed a case on the basis of them attempting to promote enmity on religious grounds.

Opposition led by the DMK demanded the case be withdrawn. However, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami supported the decision of the case being filed; he stated that since some aspects of the discussion touched on the recent incidents of violent protests in Tuticorin, it could incite an incident. Essentially, according to the Chief Minister, any debate or discussion on an ongoing event should not happen.

The discussion that was organized had wide ranging views not limited to the Tuticorin incidents.

Stifling debate and discussion and free speech is a step backwards; something that the Chief Minister doesn’t comprehend. The Hindu editorial described this latest move by the government as a new low –

That the Tamil Nadu government could have slapped a case against the Tamil news channel under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (pertaining to promoting enmity between groups), and other sections of the law, would be laughable if it wasn’t so unspeakably appalling”.

The FIR was filed before the programme aired. The police have stated that the manager of the college where the debate was filmed complained that he was not informed that there would be a political debate, something which the channel refutes.

The Editors Guild also condemned the state government for using its own cable TV service and distribution agency, Arasu Cable, to blackout and control channels that were critical of the government. The government’s attempt to control media content is potent. Arasu cable accounts for almost two thirds of the market share. This remarkable statistic could undermine a free press.

Lately, there have been apprehensions that the State government is using its domination of the distribution space to bring news coverage by TV channels in line. There have been allegations that access to a couple of other news channels was disrupted as well”.

The fact that the chief minister defends the case brought on against the channel and others is not in isolation. Former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was criticized by the Supreme Court in 2016 in an appeal against a criminal defamation case filed by the state government. The court stated in part, “This is not how a healthy democracy functions. You must face criticism if you are a public figure”.

This isn’t the first time Puthiya Thalaimurai has come under attack. Last year, after airing a poll on the RK Nagar by-polls and once the OPS camp emerged victorious; it was deemed that Sasikala was shown in a bad light. Following this, the channel was taken off air in Madurai and in more than a dozen other districts.

The choice of topic and debate organized by Puthiya Thalaimurai leaned against the BJP; a feeling that is common in the state, one which the BJP hasn’t been successful in entering. The current government has been more pro-BJP than before. This action against one particular channel is no accident. It’s a message to others as well; only debate and discuss on certain topics and not on others, especially ones which are timely and relevant.

It’s not a stretch to believe that the rationale or purpose for coming down hard on Puthiya Thalaimurai is to send a larger message to the rest of the media. If this isn’t the takeaway that the government wants, then a clear message would be to withdraw the FIR and end this form of intimidations and threat.

More columns by Varun Sukumar