The Broken Estate

How political ownership curtails press freedom

01 December 2013
DMK head M Karunanidhi and his grand-nephews Kalanithi (left) and Dayanidhi Maran exert undue control over Tamil media.
R RAGU / THE HINDU IMAGES
DMK head M Karunanidhi and his grand-nephews Kalanithi (left) and Dayanidhi Maran exert undue control over Tamil media.
R RAGU / THE HINDU IMAGES

IN SEPTEMBER 2007, shortly after a squabble with his grand-nephews Kalanithi and Dayanadhi Maran over an opinion poll published against his wishes in Dinakaran, a Maran-owned daily, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M Karunanidhi launched a new television channel. As an entertainment platform, Kalaignar TV was meant to rival Sun TV, which was owned and controlled by the Marans. Perhaps more importantly, it was also meant to serve as a political tool. Through its news broadcasts, Kalaignar TV would become the DMK’s new informational wing.

Karunanidhi and his grand-nephews soon patched things up, but they continued to use Sun and Kalaignar to advance their political interests. In the run-up to the 2009 general elections, for instance, the two channels virtually blanked out reports of the ongoing genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The DMK had been decrying Tamil victimhood in order to rally the electorate, but the coverage would have roused anger over the inaction of the country’s governing UPA coalition, of which the DMK was a part, and over the party’s inability to stem the violence. At the same time, the Marans, who also ran the dominant cable distribution system in the state, Sumangali Cable Vision, were blocking the telecast of Makkal TV. Makkal—owned by S Ramadoss, the leader of a rival party that had broken off an alliance with the DMK because of differences over the civil war in Sri Lanka—had been spearheading coverage of the island’s bloodbath.

At the polls, DMK and its UPA allies bagged 27 of the state’s 39 seats. Although it’s impossible to determine the precise effect that the DMK’s censorship efforts had on the outcome, the party was clearly able to exert considerable control over the flow of information to voters.

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    Suhrith Parthasarthy practises law at the Madras High Court. 

    Keywords: media political parties Sun TV Jayalalithaa TV channel freedom of speech and expression news
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