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 Notably, the ban on Asianet was revoked at 1.30 am on the morning of 8 March while the one on Media One was lifted at 9.30 am.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.