by Ms. Sadaf Arshad
Co-ordinating Editor of Media Monitor
South Asian Free Media Association
All the governments all over the world, either in the process of grabbing power or coming into power, always pledge themselves to upholding press freedom. But it often proves otherwise when it comes to fulfilling their commitment, rather they take a hostile attitude against the fourth state. This happens even in the biggest democracies like India. The sixth most populous state, Tamil Nadu, is at the southern tip of the country, at the border of Kerala, Karnatka, and Andra Pradesh. Due to rapid increase in the literacy rate, Tamil Nadu reports the second highest growth rate in India in the last decade. All praise for globalisation, which made Tamil Nadu stand in the list of the largest economies of India at number five with the highest number of vocational training institutions. The politics of this state dominated by two regional political parties — Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
A recent incident that brought DMK into the limelight is how press freedom is guaranteed there, but with stains of blood. On May 6 three groups attacked a Tamil daily Dinakaran. One group arrived at the office at 9.30 a.m., second at 10 a. m. and third at 11:30 a.m. The first group merely raised slogans and burnt copies of the daily; the second entered the premises and smashed glass panes and the third threw petrol bombs and set vehicles on fire. Later, more than 100 persons were arrested in connection with these incidents. The arson attack was carried out by supporters of M K Azhagiri, the eldest son of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi who is the head of DMK.
In his old age when he has crossed his 80s, the issue of choosing his successor is like a hot cake for the media, which is understandable as what else one can expect the media to focus on, if not politics. The newspaper published the result of an opinion poll by an independent organisation asking a question: `Who should be Kalaignar [Karunanidhi’s] political heir?’ Azhagiri, the survey found, scored six percent in Madurai, the city he regards as his bastion; two percent statewide; and a humiliating zero percent in Chennai. M.K. Stalin, younger brother and political rival of Azhagiri, notched up 70 percent across the state; 68 percent in Chennai; and a whopping 67 percent in Madurai. An unnamed category, “Others”, was shown as scoring 20 percent statewide and 31 percent in Chennai.
The DMK was formed by C N Annadurai as a breakaway faction of Dravidar Kazhagam and is now flourishing under the leadership of Karunanidhi. All his support and vision about his successor seems to be coming true in the shape of Stalin, who has a background of being a mayor of Chennai and also now a state minister which fits well as a successor of Karunanidhi. Azhagiri had a track record of being involved in the murder case of a senior DMK member and former minister D Kiruttinan in 2002, a great supporter of Stalin. Following his involvement, Karunanidhi had disowned Azhagiri politically. But the latter instigated violence and forced a compromise within the family.
The supporters of Azhagiri apparently in rage burnt the newspaper copies and attacked its offices. The sad thing was the death of two media persons and one security guard. Pro-DMK Tamil daily Dinakaran is a popular Tamil newspaper in Chennai and Coimbatore, which was started by former DMK PM, K P Kandasamy, and has now been bought by the Sun TV group owned by Kalanidhi, a relative of Chief Minister Karunaidhi. The succession battle has proved bloody for the three media employees. Azhagiri now appears to be the boss of the southern parts and was sent to those areas immediately after this arson attack. The incident took place two days ahead of a function to felicitate Karunanidhi for his remarkable 50-year services and it was expected that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi were to attend this.
The arrests of people, including the husband of the DMK mayor, were carried out by the police, which is being criticised most due to its role during the attack. Karunanidhi’s decision to hand over the case to CBI touched many hearts, as the Tamil Nadu police have lost the credibility after being a silent spectator during the murderous attack on the media organisation.
The inefficiency of the police has taken three precious lives, with a clear message that power has its own ways to rule. Media should have the independence to report what is happening rather than to have to mould and change reports as per the wishes and whims of any party. The speculation that rigging was done in the opinion polls is merely an excuse to take that bloody turn. Karunanidhi’s statement that protesters got violent after seeing the newspaper loses ground after seeing the preparation with which the attackers arrived and the damage it caused. Hurling bombs, stones, smashing windowpanes and the way they left unhurt, indicate a planned attack and conspiracy against the media group.
This was the third petrol bomb attack by Azhagiri’s men against newspapers, which shows the misuse of the position he enjoys, being the son of the chief minister. The whole episode is proof that journalists are vulnerable in India and no state guarantees the safety of media persons when the press is handled by power goons. Free expression is the soul of a free press that can ensure a democratic set up, but attacks, threats and harassment cripple its spirit. The Achilles’ heel of the system is those who misuse power, not the ones who perform their duties such as media persons. The intolerance among leaders is mounting day by day. Media is becoming the victim of the wrath of politician, who have many flaws in their parties. But the best practice is to overcome these flaws rather than try to tame the media. This is the least expected to happen in a democratic country.