Stifling media CPI(M)-style: Intolerant of criticism, ‘cyber comrades’ target journalists in Kerala

Leaders and 'cyber comrades' single out reporters critical of government, police register cases against journalists.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jun 16, 2023 | 11:00 AMUpdatedJun 16, 2023 | 11:26 AM

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan being escorted by police officials in Thiruvananthapuram. (South First)

PK Kunhanandan was a member of the CPI(M)’s Panoor Area Committee when Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) leader TP Chandrasekharan was murdered at Onchiyam in Kerala’s Kozhikode district on 4 May, 2012.

The murder exposed the CPI(M)’s vendetta politics that shocked the collective consciousness of Kerala. Chandrasekharan, disenchanted with the CPI(M)’s deviation from its ideology and principles, had left the party and formed the RMP, which soon gained popularity.

After a prolonged trial, a court convicted 12 accused, including three CPI(M) leaders. Kunhanandan was one among them.

Kunhanandan died on 11 June, 2020, aged 73. The CPI(M) took the body to his native place in a procession with thousands of party workers bidding him final adieu. His involvement in the Chandrasekharan murder did not deter the CPI(M) from according a farewell that would have befitted a fallen hero.

A U-turn after threat 

The septuagenarian was indeed a hero to the CPI(M). The party has a firm belief that he was implicated in the case. The party honoured him with a memorial at Paradu near Panoor in Kannur on his first death anniversary.

Akhila Nandakumar. (Sourced)

Akhila Nandakumar. (Sourced)

KK Mohammed Shafi, the fifth accused in the murder case, was present when the memorial was unveiled. He was then on parole after the government decided to decongest prisons as part of its efforts to contain Covid-19 spread.

CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan inaugurated the Kunhanandan remembrance meeting this year. He explained how the trial by the media resulted in implicating Kunhanandan and his long incarceration.

“He was the darling of the people. The wicked media crucified him through irresponsible reporting. Kunhanandan was a victim of the heinous media trial that continues to target the CPI(M) and its leaders,” he said to the applause of thousands of party workers on Sunday, 11 June.

The same day, he made another statement targeting the media. He threatened the media of continued police action if it persisted in reporting against the government and the Students Federation of India (SFI), the students’ arm of the CPI(M), which, of late, has been making headlines for the wrong reasons.

Govindan’s threat came a day after the police registered a case against Akhila Nandakumar, the chief reporter of Asianet News, based on a complaint by PM Arsho, SFI’s state secretary.

Arsho, a post-graduate student of Archeology and Material Cultural Studies at Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam, was in the news after his third-semester mark list mentioned him as passed though he had not sat for the examination. The college later blamed technical glitch for the gaffe.

Nandakumar reported what others, including a leader of the Kerala Students Union (KSU) — the Congress party’s student arm — had to say. She was arraigned as the fifth accused in the defamation case.

The other accused were course coordinator Vinod Kumar, college principal Dr VS Joy, KSU’s state president Alosiouis Xavier, and KSU’s college unit vice-president CA Faisal.

On Tuesday, 13 June, Govindan mellowed down and took a U-turn. He blamed the media for misreporting his previous statement. “Passing sheep off as a dog,” he said.

Related: Asianet journalist named accused in ‘conspiracy’ case to defame SFI leader

Journalists in CPI(M) crosshairs

Despite Govindan’s climbdown from his earlier stance, Kerala’s ruling dispensation and its leaders, including ministers, apparently consider journalists as arch rivals and their reports as the major threat to the government.

CPI(M) Kerala state secretary MV Govindan. (Facebook)

CPI(M) Kerala state secretary MV Govindan. (Facebook)

The CPI(M)’s touchiness over critical reporting and intimidation of non-complying journalists are ostensible in Kerala despite the party’s national leaders, Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat, mobilising public opinion against the BJP-RSS attempts to gag free and independent media, the fourth pillar of a democracy.

Two days after Nandakumar was implicated in the conspiracy case, Asianet‘s news anchor Abgeoth Varghese received a call from a police station in Thiruvananthapuram.

He was asked to present himself to make a statement regarding a news report item he had presented almost three years ago.

When the summons snowballed into a controversy, the police explained that Varghese was not an accused, but a witness in a case filed by solar scam accused Saritha S Nair against the then KPCC president Mullappally Ramachandran, who made some observations about her in a news conference.

“All television channels, online media, and newspapers in Kerala carried the news item after the press conference. Other than reading out the report by the reporter concerned, I have done nothing special,” Varghese told South First.

“It’s dubious that they singled me out to record the statement much later. They explained that I am a witness only after the summons became a controversy,” he added.

Also read: Kerala police confirm former SFI leader Vidya forged document

Flat tyre puts media on the dock

In a joint operation on 4 April night, Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), local police, and central intelligence agencies arrested Shahrukh Saifi, accused of arson aboard the Alappuzha-Kannur Executive Express near Elanthur in Kozhikode two days ago.

Three people were killed in the incident. The ATS said Saifi had confessed to the crime.

He was handed over to a Special Investigation Team (SIT) from Kerala. The team took him back by road in a hired taxi, allegedly without proper security arrangements.

Pinarayi Modi

Pinarayi Vijayan receiving Modi at the Trivandrum airport. (Supplied)

A reporting team of Mathrubhumi News came to know about the transportation of the accused after the taxi got a flat tyre on the Kannur bypass. The news team rushed to the scene, took visuals, and aired a story that also highlighted the casual manner in which the accused was being shifted.

Within days, the police slapped criminal cases against the reporter Felix Fernandes, cameraperson Shabu Chanthappura and driver Anfal for obstructing the official duty of a criminal investigation team, destruction of evidence, trespassing, intimidating and attempting to create unrest.

Further actions are pending, but the phones seized from the team are still with the police.

“See how things are unfolding in present-day Kerala. It’s journalistic duty to reach the scene and report from there. Nobody obstructed the duty of the police team, which was supposed to ensure alternative vehicles and additional security,” MV Vineetha, president of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ), told South First.

Also read: Of free media, democracy, solidarity and judiciary in the age of intolerance

Reporter feels the heat of khaki blunder

​According to sources in the Home Department, instructions have already been passed to the police to target journalists whose reports put the government in an awkward situation.

And the police are acting accordingly.

A journalist who reported on the travel route of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing a probe. The reporter got the information after a senior police officer, ignorant of the risks involved, forwarded the itinerary to the journalist over WhatsApp. Attempts are now on to save the officer.

A journalist who reported a POCSO case from Azhiyoor in Kozhikode is also facing police action for obstructing a public servant from discharging his duty. The journalist had published a report criticising the police for releasing the accused, who was involved in a major synthetic drug trafficking case using minor girls as carriers.

In another instance, the Crime Branch served a notice on Malayala Manorama‘s Special Correspondent Jayachandran Elangath after he reported alleged corruption and irregularities in recruiting employees in the public sector unit, the Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited.

The charge is that he caused disrespect to the company among the general public.

Also read: Kerala minister blames ‘rotten journalism’ for transgender suicide

News team caught in church feud

A reporter and cameraperson of Asianet News in Pathanamthitta were charged for attempting to create unrest by pasting posters against Health Minister Veena George last month. The case against them was dropped after a member of the religious group confessed to putting up the posters of his own volition.

Inspection on eateries

Kerala Health Minister Veena George. (Facebook)

The minister and the accused hail from the same community, and a church-related feud was behind the poster campaign. George, herself a former journalist, accused the media team of committing the crime.

The leaders’ intolerance of independent media has trickled down to the “cyber comrades” — CPI(M) cadres and sympathisers active on social media. Instances of cyber comrades singling out and targeting journalists on social media platforms are on the rise in the state.

Incidentally, they seldom take the legal route against journalists they — or their political masters — consider as peddling fake news.

Related: Prithviraj to sue website for false and defamatory allegations

Overseas abuse

Shajan Skariah, the chief editor and managing director of the Malayalam news portal Marunadan Malayali, is now the prime target of the cyber comrades. The portal has been accused of carrying flimsy and unsubstantiated reports targeting CPI(M) leaders and their family members, especially of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

PV Anvar, MLA. (PV Anvar/Facebook)

PV Anvar, MLA. (Facebook)

But instead of taking legal recourse against manipulated stories, the cyber comrades encourage mob violence against Skariah, who was recently abused even at Gatwick Airport in the UK.

CPI(M) social media users celebrated the video of the abuse saying that Skrariah was assaulted in the airport by a party supporter for his yellow journalism.

Leading the cyber comrades, Nilambur MLA PV Anvar congratulated the abuser and warned of such incidents if Skaraiah continued putting out fake and unsubstantiated news.

Skaraiah has been facing defamation cases in several courts across the country. Chairman and Managing Director of LuLu Group MA Yusuff Ali and movie star Prithviraj Sukumar are among those who have filed cases against him.

He accused the CPI(M) cyber wing of mass reporting against the social media pages of his portal, resulting in the hiding of key content.

Even those who have reservations about Skariah’s journalism felt the physical attack, intimidation, mass reporting, and showering abuses on him and his family members are symptoms of growing intolerance in Kerala.

Related: Malayalam portal to take down defamatory content against Yusuff Ali

Vengeance of Elamaram

Asianet News appears to be the most targeted television channel in Kerala. A criminal case is pending against its Associate Editor Vinu V John after he strongly criticised CPI(M)’s Rajya Sabha member Elamaram Kareem on air for backing violence during a bandh. The Home Department refused clearance when John applied for renewing his passport.

Sindhu Sooryakumar. (Sourced)

Sindhu Sooryakumar. (Sourced)

Asianet‘s Executive Editor Sindhu Sooryakumar, Regional Editor Shajahan Kaliyath, and Reporter Nofal Bin Yusuf are facing criminal proceedings for allegedly creating fake videos using a minor girl to campaign against the government’s anti-narcotics drive.

Anvar, a CPI(M)-supported independent MLA, was at the forefront of the campaign against the three journalists, widely perceived as political vendetta rather than an objective analysis of the news.

When Malayala Manorama pointed out certain lapses related to the organising of the recently held Loka Kerala Sabha in New York, Vijayan himself came out singling out the newspaper and launching a scathing attack. He said the newspaper owners were using the money from their rubber business to show the government in poor light.

“In Kerala, a peculiar kind of difficult situation is prevailing. The party and its cadres are getting provoked even by minor critical references to its leaders in news items. The irony is that CPI(M) is mounting national public opinion against the insensitivity and intolerance of BJP-RSS,” veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar said.

When contacted by South First, film actor and social observer Joy Mathew said he is the subject of large-scale social media vilification after criticising the insensitivity of CPI(M) bosses.

“Now the cyber cadres falsely accuse me of talking nonsense under the influence of narcotics. This is worrisome as Left party cadres share the same intolerance as of their Sangh Parivar counterparts,” Mathew said.