Is “press freedom” a licence to do anything?

GIRISH NIKAM writes from New Delhi: “Freedom of the press is the cornerstone of any democracy,” is a well-worn cliché though it has stood the test of time as a universal truth. No one in a functional democracy like ours can deny the importance of the freedom of the press. It is also a fact that this freedom has not come about easily.

People in authority have a tendency to undermine this freedom, whenever it comes in their way. And therefore eternal vigilance of the people and the media is an essential requirement to maintain this freedom. And to protect our democracy.

It is also a fact that many a time this freedom boils down to freedom of the proprietor, more than the freedom of the journalist. And this is a subject which attracts very passionate debates within the media circles.

No wonder when distinguished media persons like N. Ram of The Hindu and H.K. Dua of The Tribune, intervened on behalf of the Eenadu newspaper group, the other day during the seminar on the relationship between the legislature and the media, in the Parliament Library complex, the issue became a hot topic of debate.

The two editors, one a proprietor-editor (Ram) and the other editor of a group run by a unique trust (Dua), pitched for Ramoji Rao and his newspaper, and sought to make out a case against the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajashekara Reddy for trampling on the freedom of the press. The two warned the journalists that these attempts should be fought as they spell danger for the entire media.

These passionate appeals in the normal circumstances would have had the desired response as Indian media have by and large stood up against any assault on the freedom of the press.

The facts and circumstances of the present “war” between the Eenadu group and the Andhra Pradesh government however has a different dimension, which needs to be understood, before any hasty conclusions are drawn.

The tussle started when a Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh revealed that Margadarsi Financiers (not Margadarsi Chit Funds) had started dilly-dallying about repaying its depositors, after the deposit period had expired.

He also came out with its balance sheet which clearly showed that till 2005, deposits of Rs. 2, 200 crore had been collected, on which a loss of Rs 1,100 incurred had been incurred.

Moreover, the MP established that Margadarsi Financiers was a Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) company, of which the karta was Ramoji Rao, the owner of the Eenadu Group.

The RBI laws strictly disallow any HUF from collecting deposits from the public, and it has listed out 21 relatives from whom deposits can be collected. Margadarsi Financiers had however collected Rs.2, 200 crore from lakhs of depositors.

The performance of this company as well as how these funds are being used is entirely another matter.

What is pertinent here is that the collection of deposits from the public is illegal. It is quite possible that the public deposited their funds, thinking that they were doing it in Margadarsi Chit Funds, which has a good reputation for decades. However, Margadars Financiers is a different entity and not as old as the Margadarsi Chit Fund.

When this issue was raised, Ramoji Rao used all the might of his TV channels and the vastly circulated newspaper, Eenadu, to refute these charges—not convincingly is another matter—and charged the Government of launching a witch-hunt.

He also made out a case of freedom of press being under attack.

It is no secret that Ramoji Rao has openly taken an anti-Congress stand in his newspapers for years and is also seen as a friend, philosopher and guide of the Telugu Desam party chief, Chandrababu Naidu, having been close to his late father-in-law and TDP founder N. T. Rama Rao.

It is also no secret that the present chief minister and Ramoji Rao have no love lost for each other, considering the years of targeting both have done of each other.

It is also no secret that what began as an exposure of Ramoji Rao’s “dubious” financial company activities, has now been expanded to his “dubious” land deals involving hundreds of acres of prime land in and around his dream project, Ramoji Film City.

YSR’s decision to give notice to Ramoji about his lands, led to YSR himself being exposed with his excess assigned lands. In a fit of over-smart thinking, he surrendered the lands, only to face the allegation that he had kept the holdings under wrap all this time.

Be that as it may, Andhra Pradesh is now undergoing convulsions with every other big politician, industrialist, newspaper baron, among others getting exposed and charged with holding illegal lands.

Coming back to the issue of freedom of the press, now would we be fair in defending Ramoji Rao for all the acts of commission and omission in his other business activities, which have nothing to do with his newspaper or the news TV channels?

#Should the conflicts with law and its violations by the media magnates in their other business activities be treated with kid gloves, just because they control media?

# Should any Government take action or dare to take action, legitimate of course, if there is a prima facie case of illegality on the part of these media barons in their other businesses?

# And should such legitimate actions be dubbed as an assault on the freedom of the press?

In the Ramoji Rao vs YSR battle, which we are witnessing, does Eenadu or ETV figure in any of the Government’s actions? Has any journalist of these outfits faced any difficulty in performing his legitimate duty, and has any government machinery been used to come in his way?

While all these questions need careful scrutiny and answers before we jump to any conclusions, one also needs to look at the dangers of any blind support to cries of “assault on the freedom of the press”.

It is no secret that dozens if not hundreds of fly-by-night operators and businessmen with dubious track records start media organisations, only as a cover for their illegal activities.

Ramoji Rao does not come under this category as he has displayed stamina, strength and commitment in running his newspaper for over three decades and his TV channels for nearly a decade.

Yet, can he claim clemency for any illegal or illegitimate actions in his other businesses, on the ground that he has been a committed media man?

Is this an assault on the freedom of the press?

It is for each one of us to judge, before we scream, “there is an attack on the freedom of the press”.

First published in Sunday Vijay Times, Bangalore

cross-posted on the sans serif