Abusive media vs angry legislature

By: Madabhushi Sridhar

Telugu channel TV9’s sarcastic and scathing coverage of events in the new Telangana legislature has set the stage for a legal confrontation.

The face-off, since last week, between the Telangana Assembly and a section of the Seemandhra media which has apparently not reconciled itself to the birth of the new state has raised vital legal issues. The new Assembly passed a resolution on June 14, authorising speaker Madhusudanachary to take stern action against the news channel TV9. The Speaker referred the issue to a special committee (in the absence of a Privileges Committee). If the Assembly were to imprison or reprimand media persons, as some have demanded, for the derogatory and contemptuous reporting of the swearing-in of its MLAs by the Seemandhra owned TV9, the new state’s legislative history would begin with a confrontation between a constitutional Estate and the Fourth Estate. The battle-lines are already being drawn: While the media is claiming freedom of speech, the angry legislature is saying its dignity has been violated by abusive media coverage.

Power to punish for contempt

The power of legislatures to punish for contempt stems from privileges indirectly recognised by the Constitution. This is also a form of ‘restriction’ on the freedom of speech and expression over and above the grounds of restrictions listed in Article 19(2). Citizens including media persons have a fundamental right to criticise the actions of legislators, the proceedings of the house, budget, speeches, answers, no confidence motions, etc. They can make fair comments as part of press freedom. However, trouble begins when they exhibit ‘contempt’ towards the legislature, which might provoke the Privileges Committee to decide to punish the contemnor. The Privileges Committee and the Speaker have to decide whether telecast is contemptuous or not. According to Halsbury’s Laws of England (1977), if the comment lowers the dignity or authority of the House or has a tendency to produce such a result, it may be regarded as contempt even if there is no precedent for the offence. The power to punish for contempt is considered the ‘keystone’ of legislative privilege. This power has been derived from the privileges of the House of Commons. If the comment brings the House into odium, ridicule or contempt it might attract punishment. Casting of reflections or aspersions on the House, its committees, or its members would be examples of ‘contempt’ of the House.

An oft-quoted example relates to Blitz magazine in the 1960s. The weekly news magazine was held guilty of contempt for captioning a photograph of a Lok Sabha Member of Parliament, J B Kripalani as “Kripaloony”. Blitz’s editor, R K Karanjia, was summoned to the bar of the house on August 29, 1961 and reprimanded. The Committee explained that “libellous reflections, contemptuous insults, gross calumny or foul epithets” used against a member of the House “on the account of his speech or conduct in the House is gross contempt of the House”.

TV9’s coverage

Looking at TV9’s highly controversial reporting of the swearing in, from this perspective, some grounds do appear to present themselves.

While reporting on the swearing-in the channel did use foul epithets. It said, “What will a loincloth-clad person do when offered a laptop? Where will he tuck it? Wonder if they shove it inside their loin or sell it somewhere! But the T-MLAs took them with both hands just as a drunkard would crave spicy pickle!”

It could attract the charge of gross calumny for saying: “Not just their body language, they became laughing stock even at the oath-taking ceremony! Let’s go to the Assembly to watch and enjoy the first day first show!”

Libellous reflections? The channel said, “What would happen if you screen a Hollywood movie in a multiplex to someone who is habituated to watching old movies on touring theatre? Sample this!” The channel seemed to be implying that villagers who watch movies in touring talkies should never visit a multiplex, or that a villager should never get elected to the Assembly. It is an allegation that the new legislators are incompetent and hence undeserving.

While showing K Chandrasekhar Rao, the first Chief Minister of Telangana, taking oath, the channel played a song in the background, of which the gist was that a ‘wonder’ had happened. As the ‘wonder’ song continued, the cameras panned to show legislators of almost all political parties, including the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, the Telugu Desam Party, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), apparently implying that there was something extraordinary, perhaps bizarre, about all these legislators being in the assembly. It was thus ‘casting libellous reflections’ on the legislators.

While presenting scenes of oath taking and other shots within House and beyond the House, a commentator spoke in a Telangana accent, using idioms and expressions typical of Telangana, apparently to cast aspersions on the newly elected legislators. The anchor of the news bulletin, who was at first speaking Telugu in a Seemandhra accent, suddenly switched over to a Telangana accent, apparently to insult legislators. It appeared to be deliberate ridicule, given that the 60 year old fight for Telangana was basically around self-respect, and recognition of its specific cultural and linguistic attributes.

Senior Journalist P Yadagiri comments that he has never seen such coverage since the advent of privately-owned TV in India, and that it smacks of arrogance stemming from ignorance. He fears regulatory controls being brought in to tame the excesses of a biased media, if the media fails to regulate itself. Indeed, the Chief Minister already seems to be contemplating new laws to address the anti-Telangana campaign in the media.

Banning the channel – undemocratic?

Without those laws even being brought in, the Association of Telangana multiple system operators of the cable TV industry stopped telecasting the programs of two TV channels. TV9 and ABN. TV9 was “banned” by MSOs earlier, too, for its alleged bias reporting the Sakala Janula Samme (strike in all walks of life for Telangana) two years ago. Before the division of Andhra Pradesh into two states, MSOs were at the mercy of the power centres in Andhra Pradesh and their media supporters. But now for the first time, the anti-Telangana media has been put on the defensive.

The “ban” on TV9 and ABN has been attacked by some leaders as undemocratic. The Opposition TDP, BJP and Congress legislators favour ‘punishment’ after due process, rather than obstructing telecast. It is striking to note that there is little sympathy for the channel and the quality of its coverage, which is unanimously being seen as beyond the pale. Significantly, journalists trade unions are being silent as they do not want to be associated with such news coverage.


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