It’s hot down under!

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Media repression in the southern states is thought to have started with RK Hegde, but continues unabated, and even Gauri Lankesh’s murderers live free

G Ulaganathan

G Ulaganathan

The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald, He is also a visiting professor to a number of universities and colleges and writes for NYT. Currently, he is Bureau Chief (South) of Parliamentarian

“Aama... intha cartoon aathirathin uchathil thaan varanthen”. Yes...I drew this cartoon at the height of my anger.

That was Tamil Nadu cartoonist G Bala’s confession on Facebook on October 24, as he shared a cartoon depicting a burning child lying face-first on the ground, surrounded by the Tirunelveli district Commissioner of Police, the Tirunelveli Collector and the state Chief Minister, Palaniswamy. Their eyes are downcast and they cover their genitals with wads of cash.

Bala did not quite expect what followed. It created a political storm and an angry chief minister ordered his immediate arrest. The cartoon was a scathing comment on the state’s inability to prevent a family of four in Tirunelveli from immolating themselves in public, unable to withstand the harassment from a moneylender.

The head of the household, a daily-wager, Isakkimuthu, had complained to the police several times about the harassment. With police not taking any action, on October 23, he killed himself and his family, including his 18-month-old daughter, in front of the district Collectorate.

Political Umbrage

The cartoon was shared among more than 25 lakh people in just six days. The Tamil Nadu government, AIADMK especially, saw it as great insult. Not realising that truth had hit them where it hurts most, they swung into action. Bala re-posted his cartoon six days later.

Two weeks later, on November 5, the 36-year-old was arrested by the Tirunelveli police in Chennai. The Tirunelveli Collector, Sandeep Nanduri, had filed a complaint with the Tirunelveli District Crime Branch on November 1, about the “obscene representation” of Chief Minister Palaniswami and government officials. The cartoonist was charged under Section 501 of the Indian penal code, for “printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory” and under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, for “publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form”.

In the wake of the total outrage this government action created, the Tirunelveli district court granted him bail.

“It was an ordinary cartoon,” said Bala in his statement on YouTube after he was released on bail. “It was my anger against the government and the death of the child. The cartoon just expressed those feelings. I never expected them to take such drastic steps. Both, under Karunanidhi’s and Jayalalithaa’s rule, I have drawn even more scathing cartoons. Although they were thought to be intolerant of criticism, I was never arrested.”

Profile: Courage

Bala has been an independent cartoonist, publishing his work on his blog and Facebook page. For 12 years prior to that, he had been a cartoonist and special correspondent for the Tamil weekly magazine Kumudam. In January 2015, he published a 136-page book of cartoons titled ‘Namakku Ethukku Vambu’ (“Why take the trouble”). Bala has also started a digital media venture called Linesmedia.in, of which he is the chief executive. On this new venture, Bala wrote, “We would like to begin our journey with freedom and as stand one of a kind from other media, who are all at present genuflecting before Anna Arivalayam (headquarters of the DMK party), Poes Garden (where Jayalalithaa resided) and Kamalaalayam (BJP’s headquarters in Chennai).”

Bala is one of the most popular cartoonists in the state, with over 65,000 followers on Facebook. Tamil leaders have not been the only subjects of Bala’s cartoons. He often referred to BJP as “trousers” worn by the Hindu nationalist outfit, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Amma’s Angst

Bala is not the only one to suffer in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa had slapped more than 150 defamation cases against various journalists and media organisations for writing against her. They include well known editors like N Ram of The Hindu, Nakkeeran Gopal and S Balasubramaniam of the popular Tamil weekly, Ananda Vikatan.

The other tactic she adopted was to stop government advertisements to anti-establishment newspapers and television channels. This made even established dailies like the New Indian Express (NIE) to play ball with her.

NIE went to the ridiculous lengths of blacking out her arrest and imprisonment in Bengaluru jail in the disproportionate assets case.

When every newspaper in the country front-paged the news, NIE had a small report in one of the inside pages, shocking the readers. Just last month, S Thirumurugan, a 19-year-old engineering diploma holder, was arrested from Srivilliputhur town near Virudhinagar based on a complaint from a BJP district secretary for his alleged abusive remarks on Modi in a private chat in the Facebook messenger.

Momentous Murder

Gauri Lankesh was the editor of a Kannada-language tabloid, Patrike, that has frequently been critical of Hindu extremists. Gauri, who was in her 50s, was shot by three assailants as she was entering her home and she died shortly after.Gauri, like her father Lankesh, was known as a fierce critic of Hindu nationalist organisations and was convicted of defamation last year for a piece accusing members of the BJP of theft. She had told Newslaundry last year that the “rabid hate” directed at her online had made her fear for the state of free expression in India.

“Unfortunately, today anybody talking in support of human rights and against fake encounters is branded a Maoist supporter,” she said.

“Along with that, my criticism of Hindutva politics and the caste system... makes my critics brand me as a Hindu hater. But I consider it my constitutional duty to continue – in my own little way – the struggle of Basavanna” (major 12th century Kannada social reformer) “and Dr Ambedkar towards establishing an egalitarian society,” she had written in a blog. Two years ago in Karnataka, an outspoken scholar and critic of religious groups, MM Kalburgi, was also shot dead by unidentified assailants.

Gauri, in her article which was originally published on June 16, 2017 in The Wire, accused the Karnataka MLAs. “Karnataka legislators have long had a penchant to haul up journalists for allegedly breaching their precious ‘parliamentary privileges’.

Outdated Privilege

The latest to be targeted are Ravi Belagere and Anil Raju, editors of two local weeklies. Speaker of the legislative assembly and head of the House Privileges’ Committee, KB Koliwad has sentenced both of them to one year in jail and imposed a fine of Rs. 10,000 each for having published allegedly defamatory articles about legislators, thus breaching their ‘holier than thou’ privilege.

“The point here is not what the two editors published in their journals, because what they published amounts to defamation and not breach of privilege. The issue here is the colonial legacy called ‘parliamentary privileges’ of elected representatives. This archaic law which allows law makers to become judges and sentence journalists to imprisonment should not even exist in a democracy,” Lankesh castigated.

Tracing the history of attack on journalists, she blames Ramakrishna Hegde for starting it all. “Ramakrishna Hegde really tried to throttle the freedom of the press in the name of legislators’ privileges. Though he was portrayed as the ‘original Mr Clean’, ‘PM in the making’, etc., by the mainstream media, it was her publication Patrike that brought out the Revajeetu housing scam, NRIHA land scam and the irregularity in allotting arrack bottling contracts under his watch.

Hegde tried to push through the Karnataka Legislature (Powers, Privileges and Immunities) Bill, 1988. However, since the bill allowed for excessive punishment to journalists there was a public outcry. A couple of months later Hegde was forced to resign following telephone tapping charges.

Independent MLA Vatal Nagaraj, who is a self-appointed custodian of Kannada culture and language, had physically assaulted Lankesh in 1980 for publishing an article against him. Though the issue created a storm in the state assembly for a couple of days, the then speaker Ramesh Kumar subsequently let it die a silent death. With the number of 24X7 Kannada news channels increasing, things are becoming chaotic. In March this year, several MLAs joined hands to condemn TV channels for “projecting them in poor light’”, “twisting facts” and “reporting false news”. BJP MLA Suresh Gowda, who was seen assaulting a worker at a toll booth, complained on the floor of the house that he was termed “rowdy Suresh Gowda” by a TV Channel.

Kerala Violence

Journalist Sajeev Gopalan was hospitalised after being allegedly assaulted by police officials, including an inspector, in Kerala’s Varkala town a couple of months ago. Gopalan works for Malayalam newspaper Kalakaumudi. He was working on a story about the alleged abduction of two women, in which the police had filed a report in favour of the accused.Gopalan was manhandled and hit on his head, face and eyes around 10.30 pm in front of his house. His wife and daughter witnessed the assault.

With the political heat rising in Kerala, with a direct confrontation brewing between CPM and RSS, journalists are caught in the crossfire and face the wrath of both the parties.

Sand Bars

Rama Reddy, a TV reporter, was attacked in apparent retaliation for his reporting on illegal sand mining last year in Chandrababu Naidu’s Andhra Pradesh.

Reddy, who lives in the Eluru district of AP, was attacked in his home around midnight on May 3 by about four unidentified individuals, according to reports. The assailants knocked on the journalist’s door and questioned him about his reports on sand mining, before beating him and his mother with iron rods, and then fleeing, the reports said.

The English-language news website Video Samachar, and INews, a 24-hour Telugu language news channel, are the media organisations for whom Reddy works. He spent four days at the hospital.

Journalists who expose illegal sand mining are vulnerable to attack. In February, supporters of Amanchi Krishna Mohan, a legislator representing Chirala district, attacked M Nagarjuna Reddy, a freelance journalist in AP. Reddy had alleged that the legislator was involved in sand-mining.

As far as killings and attacks on journalists are concerned, AP and Telangana are not safe states. According to the international watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists, of the 40 journalists killed in India since 1992, seven are from the Telugu-speaking states. According to the Indian Union of Journalists in TS and AP, from 2014 to 2017, around 20 attacks on journalists were reported in the two states. These included seven murders and one attempt to murder case.

MVN Shankar was killed in 2014 for writing against the oil mafia in Guntur. Veerabonia Yadagiri was killed in Medak in 2004 for writing onthe trade in illicit liquor. Five other journalists were killed in the1997 blasts aimed at politician Paritala Ravi.

Shankar was attacked with iron rods in Chilakaluripet town in Guntur district after he filed a series of reports on the oil mafia racketeers who steal kerosene oil and gas and mix it with much cheaper oil. He had also been writing against corruption in the rice mill trade. Such cases as these are the better known, hidden are many more.

The southern states have an old history of media repression, but since it is northern news that dominates the airwaves, such instances go unnoticed, unless it is something so dastardly as the Lankesh murder.

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