The Broken Estate

How political ownership curtails press freedom

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

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.

“Freedom of the press,” the acerbic journalist AJ Liebling once wrote, “is limited to those who own one.” Today, this freedom increasingly resides with regional parties across India, which—taking a cue from the DMK—now treat television news media as vital political instruments. A consultation paper released in February 2013 by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the largely toothless body assigned to regulate the media industry, says there is an “increasing trend of influence of political parties/politicians in the media sector.” A third of the news channels in the country, Business Standard recently reported, are for all intents and purposes controlled by politicians who have no interest in building a news brand. The effects of this are compounded by the influence that parties and party leaders often exercise over distribution of cable television. According to Business Standard, nearly 60 percent of cable distribution systems are owned or otherwise controlled by politicians, who frequently curtail the broadcasting of rival stations.

Like Sun and Kalaignar, all of these channels have a tendency to serve not as sources of reliable information, but as unabashed propagandists. Where the party that controls the channels are in power, they operate more as a fourth branch of government than a fourth estate. Unfortunately, our constitution has been interpreted—wrongly—in a manner that supports this state of affairs,

In Tamil Nadu, each of the state’s five major political parties owns at least one television channel, and all of these run at least one hour-long news programme. In addition, Jayalalithaa’s government now acts as the supplier of cable television to nearly half the state’s homes. Other states fare no better. In Andhra Pradesh, there has been a flurry of recent acquisitions of media companies by political parties. Each of the state’s 15 news channels is now politically affiliated in one way or another. In 2009, the Sakshi Group, under the chairpersonship of YS Bharati, the wife of Jaganmohan Reddy, commenced telecast of Sakshi TV. Not to be left behind, in December 2012, friends of the chief minister, Kiran Kumar Reddy, picked up a 51 percent stake in I-News, according to a Firstpost report. Since then, the channel has been distinctly pro-Congress in its coverage. In Punjab, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s family owns three news channels—PTC News, PTC Punjabi and PTC Chak De—in which the state government has often advertised its own achievements, triggering a notice from the Election Commission in January 2012. The Badal family also partially controls Fastway, the leading cable company in the state. In Karnataka, the former chief minister and leader of the Janata Dal (Secular), HD Kumaraswamy, is invested in the Kasturi channel through a private company managed by his wife, Anita.

Political control of television news is part of a broader discussion on press ownership. As the media critic Sevanti Ninan pointed out in a recent article in Mint, a majority of media companies in India are unlisted, and often owned by surrogates. Most politicians control their stakes through front companies. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has scant rules governing the declarations that media companies must make about their ownership, and it’s often impossible to determine which stakeholders control an organisation. Absent greater transparency, a ban on media ownership by politicians would likely be of little use.

TRAI has also recommended restricting organisations from maintaining interests across media platforms. The same company, TRAI says, should not be allowed to operate, or maintain interests in, a newspaper, a radio station and a television news channel, because this often manifests in corporate and political lobbying. According to the regulator, the phenomenon is most rampant “where the ownership/control rests with entities which have both business and political interests.” The Sun Group, for example, owns a raft of television channels (including Sun News in Tamil, Gemini News in Telugu and Udaya News in Kannada), two newspapers, a few magazines and several radio stations. Given that Sun operates as the informational wing of the DMK, it has a profound ability to propagate the party’s view as news.

Producing traditional news media is no doubt an expensive endeavour, and requires the backing of corporates, foundations, or public sector entities with deep pockets. While all these organisations may be prone to advancing their own interests through their media companies, political parties’ influence over the news is often significantly more dangerous, because they tend to buy stakes in regional news channels with the sole purpose of leveraging their positions politically.

Opponents of regulating ownership believe such policies are a form of indirect censorship. “Freedom of speech is not restricted to individuals: the Constitution offers the same freedom to corporate houses,” R Jagannathan of Firstpost, which is owned by Network18, a company partly funded by the Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Industries Limited, recently wrote in response to the proposed TRAI regulations. “If private parties can own a bank, or a coal mine or property, they can own a media house, too.” But can such ownership be acceptable when it comes at the cost of a disinterested media? In most Western democracies, there are restrictions on ownership, including limits on entities owning media across platforms, for precisely these reasons.

In India, the press is not a constitutionally recognised entity. The Supreme Court has read the rights of the press into article 19(1)(a) of the constitution, which guarantees the more general fundamental right to free speech and expression. This interpretation has had sweeping, and somewhat paradoxical effects. Freedom of expression can be abridged in certain cases (for example, to uphold public order, morality or decency). But a person’s right to own media is beyond the scope of these limitations, even if it harms the public interest in some way. By reading press freedom as an extension of the right to free speech, the courts have therefore made it possible for the media to be censored on the often dubious grounds of morality, while ensuring that measures to control ownership of the press are an impermissible transgression of a fundamental right.

Today, any proposed measure to regulate ownership is immediately opposed on grounds of free speech. These arguments have their ideological basis in a 1961 Supreme Court case, Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. Union of India. In its decision, the court not only recognised freedom of the press to be a part of the right to free speech, but also held that the law cannot suppress a monopoly if it interferes with a person’s right to own media. The ruling has meant that even measures taken to curb anti-competitive ownership, or ownership that impinges on the public’s ability to access information that’s free from political control, are tantamount to a trampling of press freedom.

The constitution, however, demands a contrary reading. Any rights accorded to the press must not be interpreted in a manner that represses the freedom of speech and expression of the general public, guaranteed by article 19(1)(a). This necessarily includes the public’s right to access credible information, without which the right to a free exchange of thought becomes hollow. As the American free speech lawyer C Edwin Baker wrote, placing tough restrictions on ownership supports individuals’ equal rights to participate in collective self-determination. This requires that media ownership be widely dispersed and beyond political control.

Where ownership patterns, or restrictions imposed by the government, impinge on this right to information—for instance, where the media’s ability to report on politically contentious issues is curtailed—press freedom needs to be defended as an extension of the right to free speech. Where measures such as regulations on cross-platform ownership seek to promote the public’s right to access information, they ought to be viewed by the courts as reasonable restrictions on a person’s right to own business.

Media ownership must promote a free press, not curtail it. TRAI is justified in aiming to block political parties (and companies controlled by parties) from owning media and in seeking to regulate cross-media ownership. But its authority is completely notional: all it can do is make recommendations that rarely, if ever, get enforced by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The public airways, as a result, remain an unregulated muddle. In the place of a democratic fourth estate, which our democratic system demands, we increasingly have a media infested by political influence.

Correction: Kalanithi and Dayanidhi Maran are M Karunanidhi's grand-nephews, and not his nephews as this piece earlier stated. This has been corrected online. The Caravan regrets the error.