Kerala is witnessing a heated political debate after the police on Thursday, 23 February, summoned a popular news TV anchor for a comment he allegedly made against a senior leader of the ruling CPI(M) — a party that says it champions liberty and free speech.
Violent incidents had marred the two-day Bharat Bandh — or nationwide shutdown — in 2022 against the central government’s policies affecting small-scale workers. The 28-29 March strike was called by a joint forum of trade unions.
A family shifting a patient to a hospital in an autorickshaw was attacked by pro-strike activists in Malappuram. The autorickshaw driver, Yaseer, was left with a bloodied nose.
“We had given the strike call two months ago. Now they say someone was scratched and pinched,” CPI(M)’s Rajya Sabha member Elamaram Kareem reportedly responded after the incident sparked an outcry.
The TV anchor, Associate Editor of Asianet News Vinu V John, questioned the violence and Kareem’s statement that trivialised the incident as mere “scratching and pinching”.
The prime time question
On 28 March, 2022, during News Hour, a prime time debate he hosts between 8 pm and 9 pm, John sought to know if Kareem, the CPI(M)-affiliated trade union CITU’s general secretary, would have opined the same if his family was at the receiving end.
John wondered how “a particular CPI(M) parliamentarian would have reacted if he had been assaulted by the supporters”, The Telegraph quoted him as asking.
The anchor’s question was construed as an incitement to violence.
Based on a complaint by Kareem, the Cantonment Police in Thiruvananthapuram registered a case against John on 28 April, 2022, a month after the prime time debate. The FIR accused the TV journalist of calling for an attack on Kareem and those travelling with him.
He was charged with criminal intimidation and intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace, among others, and sections of the Kerala Police Act — all bailable charges.
John was unaware of the FIR until he tried to renew his passport in June 2022. His passport was initially renewed but was revoked for hiding information about the police case.
Upholding the Constitution
On 20 February, almost a year after the case was filed, a Cantonment Police inspector issued a summons to John, asking him to appear before the investigators.
The summons also mentioned initiating legal action, including arrest, if he failed to comply.
John appeared before the police at 11 am on Thursday, 23 February, and handed over a video copy of the footage in question.
The journalist reportedly told the police that the discussion was over the public criticism against Kareem for justifying the violence and the denial of basic human rights during the shutdown.
The talk show was an attempt to uphold Article 19(1)(d) of the Constitution, which guarantees every citizen the right “to move freely throughout the territory of India”, he told the police.
Investigators reportedly told John that he could be summoned again for further probe into the case.
CPI(M) double standards
The CPI(M)’s rivals saw a “double standard” in the incident. Kareem, the party’s floor leader in the Upper House, has coordinated with the Opposition parties against the Narendra Modi government after the income-tax raids on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Incidentally, the raids came after the BBC aired a two-part documentary on Modi and the 2002 Gujarat carnage. The CPI(M), its affiliates, and the Opposition Congress, screened the documentary, India: The Modi Question, across the state. Kareem was one of the main organisers.
A warning to journalists
Condemning the police action against the journalist, Opposition Leader VD Satheesan said the Left Front government is turning autocratic.
“Vijayan and his cronies blame the media for their administrative and political failures. They took another step forward by summoning a senior journalist to the police station and recording his statement,” the Congress leader said.
“It is a clear warning to journalists in the state not to report against the government. On insensitivity and intolerance, Kerala’s CPI(M) leaders are now competing with their BJP counterparts across the country,” he said.
Incidentally, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had banned Asianet News and MediaOne, another Malayalam news channel, for two days on 6 March, 2020, over their coverage of the Delhi riots that year.
Earlier, in the state Assembly, Satheesan likened John’s case to the June 2022 arrest of AltNews co-founder Mohammed Zubair.
John to South First
Speaking to South First, John said the police case would not stop him from firing “disturbing” questions at political leaders.
“I have maintained fairness and balance in all my discussions. Nothing was insulting or threatening against Kareem in that discussion. The CPI(M) is taking vengeance on Asianet for its critical approach towards the party,” he said.
Kareem had invoked Section 504 of the IPC (intentional insult with an intent to disrupt peace). John felt that no one, except the hartal supporters, disrupted the peace that day.
“I had not made any remarks on trade unions or the issues they raised while calling for the hartal. My criticism was confined to the arbitrary manner in which it was executed… not even hospital-bound people were spared,” he said.
“It is my duty as a journalist to criticise a leader who blatantly justified those who unleashed violence against a poor hospital-bound family, and damaged the autorickshaw in which they were travelling,” he added.
The most viewed Malayalam channel, Asianet, is owned by industrialist and Union Minister of State for Skill Development Rajeev Chandrasekhar. The channel claims to have a neutral position, and the BJP too had boycotted it over its reporting.
Support for John
MV Vineetha, president of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ), felt the case against John is an example for targeting independent media, which maintain a critical approach towards governments and political parties.
“A journalist’s duty is now misinterpreted as inciting violence. A professional journalist has been targeted to silence others. The union has demanded immediate withdrawal of the case against John,” she said.
Meanwhile, CPI(M) “cyber warriors” took to social media on 23 February, saying John had encouraged the viewers to deflate the tyres of Kareem’s vehicle, slap him in front of his family, and make his nose bleed.
However, during the discussion, John had asked Kareem’s followers what would have been their reaction if the CPI(M) leader was in the place of autorickshaw driver, Yaseer.
“Politicians would feel the pain of physical violence only when they are subjected to it,” the journalist said.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who holds the Home portfolio, is yet to comment on the issue.
The CPI(M) had earlier decided to boycott John-led discussions. The party revoked the decision after it faced widespread criticism.
“We stand with John and his right to make critical observations on political leaders as part of his professional duties. We will fight and win this case,” Sindhu Sooryakumar, Executive Editor of Asianet News, said.
Despite repeated attempts of South First to reach out to him, CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan refused to comment on the issue. Kareem, too, was unavailable for comment.