The devastating floods in the Tamil Nadu capital have brought a rare bonhomie between journalists from outside swooping into the disaster zone and local journalists, who usually dismiss reporters from national news outlets as paratroopers.
Instead of being snubbed, the “outsiders” were enthusiastically approached by local reporters with stories exposing the state government’s failures in rescue and relief. Some even took them to spots where assistance was yet to reach, wading through waterlogged bylanes under heavy rain.
For the sudden change of heart, they had one explanation: “We cannot write against the government. You should do this job because you are from outside.”
It is easy to see where the fear is coming from. There are at least 200 criminal defamation cases pending against journalists and news outlets at the principal sessions court in Chennai for carrying stories deemed critical against the quality of governance in the state. All of these have been filed by the state government.
“If I do this story today, the government will file a defamation case against me and my newspaper the very next day,” said the reporter of a popular English daily on the way to the Anusuya Mandapam slum on the banks of the overflowing Adyar river on Friday.
No government official showed up there in the four days since the rain of the century started pouring on December 1. The place is located off the most iconic road in Chennai — Anna Salai.
In his reaction, Tamil Nadu chief secretary K Gnanadisekan told Hindustan Times: “I am not willing to speak to you. Who are you? Why should I speak to you about this because we have not given any instructions (to censor the press)?” He promptly hung up.
The editor of a leading Tamil daily said the government has filed more than 100 defamation cases against his publication in courts across Tamil Nadu. Of the newspapers which are not connected to any political party, his is one of the few to carry critical stories against alleged government lethargy.
“We have not been getting government advertisements for months but that hasn’t stopped us. We were equally critical of the DMK government as well,” he said.
Defamation cases were filed against his paper for simply quoting Opposition leaders who criticised the government, he said.
P Thirumavelan, the editor of one of the state’s oldest political magazines, Junior Vikatan, had 20 criminal defamation cases filed against him and his weekly by the state government since J Jayalalithaa came to power.
“The latest cases were slapped a fortnight ago when we did a story analysing the performance of Jayalalithaa,” he said, the lone journalist who agreed to give his name with the quote.
Junior Vikatan carried a series of stories auditing the government’s performance over the past few months.
“We do this exercise in the last 30 weeks of every government. We did this series against the previous DMK government too. Everything was going OK until we were writing about the performance of other ministers. A defamation suit was filed as soon as a story critical of chief minister Jayalalithaa was published,” Thirumavelan said.
He still stands by the story. “It was not a personal attack on Jayalalithaa. We only wrote about the election promises that she hasn’t delivered.”
On November 30, the Supreme Court questioned the state government’s penchant for filing defamation cases. A bench of justices Dipak Mishra and Prafulla Pant advised the government to stop taking criticism of governance as personal insult.
The Hindu quoted Justice Mishra as saying: “You have to understand that these comments are criticism of a concept of governance. There is nothing against an individual ... Why this criminal defamation then.”
Defamation is not the only deterrent to free and fair reportage in the state, according to the ombudsman of a local news channel which is seen as anti-establishment.
“The government controls all the cable networks in the state through the TN Arasu Cable TV Corporation Ltd which is headed by the AIADMK’s K Udumalai Radhakrishnan. The channels critical of the government are simply taken off air.”
The ombudsman said: “When Jayalalithaa was convicted by a special CBI court in Bengaluru in a disproportionate wealth case, almost all TV channels blinked. We were once a firebrand channel. We have toned down considerably.”