Screen Test

The Hindu Right’s purge of progressive Tamil television newsrooms

S Karthigaichelvan, Nelson Xavier and M Gunasekaran (left to right) are some of the journalists sidelined after they were denounced by a Hindu nationalist YouTuber. “They hate that people from our background can ask these questions,” one targeted journalist said. ILLUSTRATION BY KEVIN ILANGO
30 November, 2020

WHEN I SPOKE to a senior staffer of News18 Tamil Nadu in October, I was told the entire organisation was crumbling. Numerous staff members had been forced to leave, the tone of the channel’s coverage had changed sharply over the last two months and all editorial decisions were now being made by a distant Delhi leadership. From being one of the state’s most successful and fastest growing channels a few months ago, News18 had gone to seeing its ratings and viewership nosedive.

Worst of all, the staffer told me, was the air of fear floating around the channel’s Chennai office. “All it’ll take is one social-media post saying I’m an anti-national and I’ll be fired,” the staffer said. “None of us can know for certain, but we could be just hours away from losing our jobs merely for having an opinion. I’ve been in the industry for a long while now and I don’t think there has been a scarier time for the Tamil media.”

The trouble began at the start of July, when Maridhas Malaichamy, a Hindu nationalist YouTuber of middling popularity, released a video accusing numerous prominent Tamil journalists of being representatives of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Tamil Nadu’s chief opposition party, and the Dravidar Kazhagam, an anti-caste self-respect movement founded by the reformer EV Ramasamy Naicker, widely remembered as Periyar. Maridhas blithely claimed that two-thirds of the News18 staff were DK supporters, and that the channel reflected their biases. He identified M Gunasekaran, its editor-in-chief, as the main culprit.

Maridhas repeated these charges in an online petition calling for News18 to “be neutral” and “have neutral journalists.” The channel soon received several hundred letters demanding that it act against supposed Dravidian sympathisers, including some from leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Tamil Nadu unit. Maridhas’s synergy with the BJP is no secret. In 2019, after a DMK leader filed a police complaint against Maridhas for spreading false claims about the party, the local BJP jumped to his defence on social media.