Asianet News proved its credibility despite Rajeev Chandrashekar’s attempts at interference

8 March 2020
On 6 March the ministry of information and broadcasting banned Asianet News for their coverage of violence in northeast Delhi. Asianet began broadcasting, with a single channel, in 1993 but has since grown exponentially. It is also, by wide consensus, the most popular and credible news channel in Kerala. Caravan Team

On 6 March, in an unprecedented move, the ministry of information and broadcasting banned two major Malayalam news channels, Asianet News and Media One, for 48 hours. The ministry issued a notice to each of the channels simultaneously and accused them of distorted coverage of the communal violence which erupted in northeast Delhi in the last week of February. A section of the notice to both channels says, “Reports on the North East Delhi violence has been shown in a manner which highlights the attack on places of worship and siding with a particular community.” The violence continued throughout the last week of February and claimed 53 lives besides rendering thousands homeless. The notice to Media One says their broadcast “also questions RSS and alleges Delhi Police inaction. Channel seems to be critical towards Delhi Police and RSS.” The inaction and occasional participation of the Delhi Police in anti-Muslim violence has been widely reported. Notably, the ban on Asianet was revoked at 1.30 am on the morning of 8 March while the one on Media One was lifted at 9.30 am.

Asianet News’ parent company, Jupiter Capital, is owned by the media mogul Rajeev Chandrashekar, who is also a member of parliament of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka. He bought a 51 percent stake in Asianet in October 2006. Chandrashekar also owns Suvarna News, a Kannada news channel. Asianet News has had a long history of credible and balanced journalism that is critical of positions across the political spectrum despite being owned by a parliamentarian of the Hindu nationalist party. In “No Land’s Man,” the cover story of the December 2017 issue of The Caravan, Nikita Saxena and Atul Dev reported on how the editorial team of Asianet have frequently resisted attempts by Chandrashekar to interfere with their broadcasts and dictate their coverage and the struggle to maintain the channel’s objectivity.

Today, Asianet News is one of the few assets in Chandrasekhar’s media portfolio that turns a significant profit. It is also, by wide consensus, the most popular and credible news channel in Kerala. Chandrasekhar frequently presents this as evidence that he does not interfere in the media ventures he invests in, as long as they build audiences and make money. This August, he told a reporter, “You have got to have a large share of the market. You have to do what you have to do to get a large share of the market.” That, he said, is his “only brief” for his media holdings. If this requires “a slight leftist slant in a market that requires a leftist slant, they do that,” he added. And “if it requires a certain slant in another market, they do that.”

What we discovered in interviews with former and current employees of Asianet News suggests the picture is more complicated. The channel’s credibility, we were told, owes much to its distinctive journalistic tradition, which has survived despite, and not always because of, the inclinations of its past and present corporate owners.

Asianet began broadcasting, with a single channel, in 1993. It was one of the very first private satellite television channels to broadcast in the country, and the first ever to do so in Malayalam. Early on, to get around the government’s broadcasting restrictions, its programmes were produced in Kerala and flown on tape to Moscow, to be beamed up to a Russian television satellite that then beamed them back down to India. In 1995, having switched to beaming its content from the Philippines, Asianet broadcast the first ever live news bulletin by a private Indian channel. The channel eventually moved all of its operations to Indian soil.

Asianet’s founders were the journalist Sashi Kumar, and his uncle, the businessman Reji Menon. Under Kumar’s guidance, the audacity that drove the channel to the lengths it went to get on air in those days also extended into Asianet’s content.

Neelan, a former news editor at Asianet, recalled how, even before the first live newscast from the Philippines, a team in Thiruvananthapuram was trained to produce bulletins. The channel was committed to the “point of view of the marginalised,” the writer Paul Zacharia, who was part of Asianet’s founding team, told us. “Our reporters came from a certain intellectual sensibility. They had to be progressive, contemporary. Non-conformism was a very important part of our agenda.”

Part of this meant opening the doors to women. “The first three girls that we hired, they didn’t last very long, the atmosphere was not very conducive,” BRP Bhaskar, who anchored a media-critique programme alongside Zacharia, said. “But the women who joined subsequently all stood their ground, and the newsroom was better for it.” The journalist Shahina KK, who started her career at Asianet, said that perhaps the company’s biggest contribution was that “it mainstreamed women in a male-centric profession in Kerala.”

“It was broadly left, but that doesn’t mean we were siding with the CPI or were anti-Congress and anti-BJP,” Neelan said. “All shades of opinions were allowed to be expressed.” But, he added, “we never telecast any mad right views. … You never tell lies and you never allow others to tell lies. That was the Asianet spirit.” NM Pearson, a political analyst from Kerala, told us that the channel became known for being “fierce, fair and independent.”

One illustrative instance came in the late 1990s, after the channel carried an interview with a member of a Naxalite group being pursued by authorities. Neelan told us that he arranged the interview, and that it left the state government displeased. At the time, he was anchoring a weekly question-and-answer show that featured Kerala’s chief minister, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader EK Nayanar. When Nayanar met Neelan to shoot an upcoming episode, he chastised him. “This is my job, unfortunately,” Neelan recalled having replied. “I am doing a job which will be uncomfortable for you, not uncomfortable only for the Congress man or the BJP man, even the Chief Minister. And I enjoy it—making you uncomfortable.”

Several politicians and journalists told us that Chandrasekhar may have been eyeing a BJP ticket for the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram. (He earlier turned down an offer of a ticket in any constituency in Bengaluru from the Aam Aadmi Party. Chandrasekhar had previously donated Rs 5 lakh to the AAP, and declared that the party’s beliefs resonated with his own.) “He was desperate to be noticed in Modi’s durbar,” the civic activist from Bengaluru said. In interviews, through his social-media accounts and on billboards he hired out, Chandrasekhar made clear his support for Modi’s bid to become prime minister.

Firmer directives starting coming down to the channel, a former journalist at Asianet told us. These seldom came from Chandrasekhar himself, and were usually communicated either through a senior editor or someone in the management.

One of the first red flags came very shortly before the election, in April 2014. By then, Chandrasekhar had started a news channel in Karnataka, Suvarna News, which had been airing a series of stories on Aadhaar, the government scheme for universal biometric identification cards that was spearheaded by Nandan Nilekani. These had first appeared on the website of the investigative news website Cobrapost. Asianet, a Kerala-based journalist told us, was told to carry the stories too.

The instruction to run the series “had come from Chandrasekhar himself,” a former journalist at Suvarna News told us. “Our editorial discussion with him was mostly around the flaws in the concept of Aadhaar, and it was a story of substance.” The intentions of the series “were never openly spelt out, but you can join the dots for yourself.”

Nilekani was the Congress candidate for the Lok Sabha election in the Bangalore South constituency. Standing against him was Ananth Kumar.

“It seemed to us that he was using Aadhaar as astroturf to make some very personal attacks on Nandan,” a person involved with Nilekani’s campaign said. An editor who has worked with Chandrasekhar told us that the media owner resents Nilekani in part because he is one of the government’s most trusted technocrats—a position Chandrasekhar may have wanted for himself.

Other directives followed. The journalist who worked at Asianet News said that Chandrasekhar “tried to tell us in a very copious way, ‘Please don’t do anything against Modi. You can do stories against the BJP, not Modi. Give him a chance for at least one term.’”

Sindhu Suryakumar, an anchor and editor at Asianet News, denied to us that Chandrasekhar had given such instructions. “He may have different opinions sometimes, about journalism or news, he will be having that,” she said. “But, in my experience, he has never imposed that on us.”

Soon after the general election, Asianet News hired MG Radhakrishnan, a former editor with India Today and the son of a CPI(M) leader, as its editor. In October 2014, the BJP leadership in Kerala declared that it was boycotting Asianet News in retaliation for what it saw as biases against the party. The journalist who worked at Asianet News said this was at least partly the result of political machinations. O Rajagopal—who, in 2016, became the first and only BJP leader ever voted into the Kerala legislative assembly—had narrowly lost out on a seat in the Lok Sabha to the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor. Rajagopal, the journalist said, believed that Chandrasekhar “had played a role in defeating him through Asianet News because he would have been a contender for the post of a union minister—which Rajeev was eyeing—had he won.” So, the journalist continued, Rajagopal worked to make Asianet News seem a hurdle to the BJP’s success in Kerala.

And there was possibly more. A political analyst with connections to the RSS told us, “There was talk about the fact that Rajeev might be a member of the union cabinet. At that moment, V Muraleedharan”—a former head of the BJP in Kerala—“wanted the position too. It was his decision to showcase Asianet as an anti-BJP channel.”

Chandrasekhar was pressured to better control his channel. Late last year, at a meeting in a luxury resort in Kovalam, the RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy reprimanded him for Asianet’s status as a “leading anti-RSS channel,” a person aware of the event told us. Chandrasekhar was concerned that the channel’s ratings could suffer if its position changed overnight. Gurumurthy suggested a change of guard. Further meetings with RSS ideologues followed, the person added, to discuss “how to change Asianet slowly, not overnight, so that it doesn’t attract too much attention.”

A person who works with the BJP in Kerala told us that, at this point, one journalist “tipped to head the channel” was Hari S Kartha—a former chief editor of Janmabhumi, a Malayalam newspaper backed by the RSS, who is now a media consultant for the head of the BJP in Kerala. But Kartha, the person said, “did not want to take the risk.” Since “all other members of the channel are card-carrying Marxists,” he added, Kartha’s “being there would not have been very effective.” It did not help that Kartha was struggling with his health at the time.

A senior member of Asianet’s editorial team told us that Chandrasekhar asked the channel’s editors to interview Kartha. “He can’t say no if requests like that are made by the party,” he said. But “Kartha did not make a journalistic fit for the channel, and we said as much.”

“This organisation has grown and matured in such a way that it would be difficult for any owner to exert any direct pressure on it,” the senior member of Asianet’s editorial team told us. The journalist who worked at Asianet News said, “Rajeev never interfered directly. But, make no mistake, he did try to interfere.”

In March 2016, Modi, in a speech while campaigning for an assembly election in Kerala that May, brought up the deaths of Adivasi children in the state and said the situation there was “scarier than even in Somalia.” The comparison irked many Malayalis—Kerala has some of India’s best development indicators—and earned the prime minister plenty of ridicule on social media. Two journalists held a live discussion on Facebook on the reception of Modi’s statement. A recording of it was uploaded to Asianet Newsable, a partner organisation of Asianet based in Bengaluru. The next day, a journalist formerly with Asianet Newsable told us, the video was taken down. The recording was also uploaded to the website of Asianet, the journalist said, and it remained available there, and on the channel’s Facebook page.

Chandrasekhar was in Kerala regularly “during the months in the run-up to the election,” a senior journalist from Kochi said, to campaign for the National Democratic Alliance. At around this time, the BJP’s Kerala leadership ended its boycott of Asianet News.

Several journalists currently at the channel told us there was no attempt to influence its election coverage. The member of the Asianet News editorial team pointed out that the channel conducted and aired one of the first pre-election surveys, which predicted a victory for the Left Democratic Front, a rival coalition to the National Democratic Alliance.

The journalist who worked at Asianet News, however, told us that Chandrasekhar pressed for coverage of Modi’s rallies in the state. He would check whether the channel broadcast Modi’s speeches in full, or only used short snippets. “He used to get irritated because we would not show the entire speech,” the journalist added. “His people would say, ‘He was not happy, you could have given more.’”

The Left Democratic Front, headed by the CPI(M), won the election. Chandrasekhar was made the vice chairman of the NDA in Kerala in September.

The same month, an email arrived in the inboxes of some senior staff at media organisations in Chandrasekhar’s portfolio, from the address of Amit Gupta, the chief operating officer of Jupiter Capital. Its subject line read, “Editorial Hirings.” The message said that all future editorial hires should be “right of centre; pro-India, pro-Military; and aligned to Chairman’s ideology.” This was leaked, and was reported in the media.

“There was a lot of outrage among the editors and backlash from the top people at Asianet News,” the former journalist with Asianet Newsable told us. “We started joking about it and calling each other sanghis.”

Gupta sent out another email the next day, requesting that the earlier one be ignored. Gupta later claimed that his account had been hacked by a “disgruntled employee.” Chandrasekhar, when asked about the email by a reporter earlier this year, said, “I have investigated it after it was reported to me, and it has nothing to do with anybody in my team. The theory that has been put out there is that this is a disgruntled employee who is trying to do a hatchet job on someone.”

“Rajeev is a man who likes to control the people under him—his lackeys from the management, even more so,” the former editor at one of Chandrasekhar’s outlets said. “I find it hard to believe that they would take the liberty to send such an email and he would be ignorant of it entirely.”

For now, Asianet News appears to displease every major political block in Kerala.

This July, the channel broke the story of an internal probe by the BJP into accusations that one of its leaders had accepted bribes from the owner of a medical college while promising to arrange government accreditation. The scandal marred the party’s image in Kerala. “Asianet is a channel of leftists,” Kummanam Rajasekharan, the president of the BJP in Kerala, told us. MT Ramesh, the BJP’s general secretary for the state, told us to look at the background of MG Radhakrishnan “and you’ll know why the channel is on a witch hunt of the party.”

Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPI(M) leader and chief minister of Kerala, alleged in the state assembly this May that a private Malayalam channel under Chandrasekhar’s control was working to push his political agenda. Several CPI(M) leaders brought up an article Radhakrishnan wrote for the daily Mathrubhumi earlier this year, in which he criticised their party’s functioning in Kerala, and said this was proof of his ideological shift.

In April 2016, Oomen Chandy, then the chief minister, included Radhakrishnan and another Asianet News journalist in a defamation suit after the channel aired a letter from a woman who accused the politician, alongside others, of sexual harassment. Chandy’s complaint read, “Asianet News is also an un-independent channel which is interested to ensure that political party represented by the complainant, viz, The Indian National Congress does not win in the oncoming elections.”

The BJP and RSS in Kerala appear to have concluded that it is beyond Chandrasekhar’s ability to control Asianet News. MT Ramesh told us, “Rajeev can’t do anything about Asianet News. Yes, he is the chairman, but all the journalists are communists. We talked to him many times, but since he is a gentlemen”—and here Ramesh laughed—“he can’t interfere too much.”

“I don’t know what is going to happen with the election in 2019,” the senior member of the Asianet News editorial team told us. “But for now, I am very proud of our journalism.”

KVS Haridas, a former editor with Janmabhumi, told us that when he ran into Chandrasekhar at an event in Thiruvananthapuram early this year, the businessman told him that Asianet News could never become a BJP channel, “but he assured me that he had told the journalists there that they could not do stories that were anti-national or anti-Modi.”

This is an extract from “No Land’s Man,” the cover story of The Caravan’s December 2017 issue, by Nikita Saxena and Atul Dev. It has been edited and condensed.

Nikita Saxena is a contributing writer at The Caravan.

Atul Dev is a former staff writer at The Caravan.