The popular Malayalam channel has a long history of maintaining a critical approach to whoever is in power and raising disturbing questions.
Almost seven years have passed since the premiere Malayalam news channel Asianet began reporting on a water theme park in the environmentally vulnerable Kakkadampoyil village on the eastern mountainous edges of the Kozhikode district.
Quoting official sources and expert studies, the channel established that it was a landslide-prone area, and even minor constructions could harm the people living there — as well as the flora and fauna of the region.
A set of illegal check dams were built in the locality by storing water in rock crevices and formations despite the listing of Kakkadampoyil by the Kerala Disaster Management Authority (KDMA) as a High-Risk Zone 1 area with higher possibilities for landslides and flash floods.
The channel also targeted the park’s promoter, businessman PV Anvar, who became a member of Kerala’s Legislative Assembly in 2016 by severing his long ties with the Congress and contesting the election as an independent backed by Kerala’s ruling LDF.
Anvar soon became a close confidant of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and, reportedly, also a significant source of funds for the CPI(M), the biggest constituent of the LDF coalition.
The aggressive coverage of the park and check dam by Asianet left Anvar furious, and he soon began targeting its journalists and editors using social media platforms.
Over the years, the reports became stronger, and the counter-attacks reciprocated in severity, with Anvar getting the support of the CPI(M) and its numerous cyber handles, which are generally intolerant to critical media reports.
Hardly two weeks have passed since the Kerala High Court ordered the immediate razing and removal of the check dam, vindicating the channel’s stand on the issue.
The court-monitored razing is now underway, and Anvar blames Asianet for the problems he has faced.
The channel was also the first to initiate a campaign against Anvar, who stayed away from Assembly proceedings — after his second win from the Nilambur Assembly constituency — for many months to engage in business in far away Sierra Leone in Africa.
A campaign, asking the electorate why their MLA was missing in action, also irked Anvar as he had to return to attend Assembly sessions, sacrificing business interests in the African country.
And just one week has gone since Anvar informed Asianet journalists through Facebook that something damaging to their reputation was in the making, and would be brought to light at any moment.
Now, a police petition filed by Anvar, alleging malpractices on the part of the channel while putting together a series on growing narcotic abuse cases in Kerala, is metamorphosing into an unprecedented war, with the ruling party targeting a news channel.
While the party used its student wing, the SFI, to occupy the regional office of Asianet in Kochi and place a banner claiming that the channel’s reportage is a wilfull distortion of facts, the government used its police force to conduct an hours-long search at another regional office — this one in Kozhikode.
While Anvar and the social media handles that support him appear happy about the developments, the issue has attracted national attention and is fast being portrayed as yet another governmental attempt to stifle the Right to Expression.
And critics say the CPI(M), which stands for media freedom and Right to Expression elsewhere, is using both its muscle power and police force to intimidate and silence a news channel that claims it is always critical of whoever is in power, irrespective of their ideology and colour of their flag.
The channel also asserts that the police, which conducted a raid on its Kozhikode premises on Sunday, 5 March, recovered nothing.
In the meantime, the cops registered a case against three of the channel’s journalists under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the Indian Penal Code, accusing them of broadcasting fake news using a minor girl last year.
The booked journalists are the channel’s Executive Editor Sindhu Suryakumar, Regional Editor Shajahan Kaliyath, and Kannur reporter Noufal bin Yousaf.
Sindhu told South First that the programme Narcotics is a Dirty Business had nothing against the government or authorities. It was broadcast as part of the efforts to raise public consciousness against rising drug abuse cases in the state.
She said it also wanted to highlight the sufferings of the victims who fell prey to the evil designs of the mafia involved.
However, as per the complaint filed by Anvar, the reporter Noufal twisted and manipulated the voice of a victim — who appeared in another programme telecast by the same channel — to give the impression that it was the voice of a new victim.
The voices have striking similarities, both in content and expression, he said. In both of them, the voices spoke about the sexual abuse of minor girls by those who engaged in drug peddling.
Citing that, Anvar claimed the channel used minor girls to fabricate misleading claims of narcotic use and sexual exploitation. So, he wanted to register cases under the provisions of the POCSO Act as well.
However, legal experts say no POCSO Act provisions would stand in the case even if the investigation proved the reporter fabricated the voice of a minor victim.
The whereabouts of the victim had not been telecast, and there was no visible instance of revealing the victim’s identity.
A day after the police raid, the issue led to an angry exchange of words between Vijayan and Opposition leaders VD Satheesan, Ramesh Chennithala, and PC Vishwanath.
The Opposition stood with the channel and asked why the government felt insecure when a television news series against narcotics was causing an impact.
The issue was further complicated by the broadcasting of an explanation by the victim’s father, who said the news story was correct and the channel had done nothing wrong.
In the meantime, some senior journalists said there was a complaint against the father in Maharashtra, claiming he had molested the girl.
“We are cooperating with the police investigation against us. They spent four hours in our regional office, and our staff cooperated. Despite that, the vilification campaign targeting the news channel is crossing all limits, and it’s quite strange that the Left parties, which are supposed to uphold media freedom, are behind it,” says Sindhu.
When asked why the LDF was always targeting Asianet, she said it was largely because the channel was number one in ratings in Malayalam.
Its credibility was high as it takes an honest and professional approach to all political parties, she said.
“Go and search on YouTube the number of reports and programmes we have done against former chief minister Oommen Chandy and his Congress government. In comparison, our attacks on the Vijayan government are very few. And I think our news-hour discussions raising straight and critical questions might be the reason for this continued anger,” she told South First.
Asked about the CPI(M) allegation that the channel was targeting the party and its government to fulfil the political interests of one of its promoters, BJP leader and Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Sindhu said the channel had done many scathing exposes on the BJP, and it would continue to do so.
“Rajiv Chandrasekhar never interfered with the independence and autonomy of our channel. And how can a BJP leader grow in his party using a channel in Kerala, where a situation adverse to Hindutva prevails. People here have strong anti-Sangh Parivar views, and no channel can misguide them,” she said.
According to channel sources, Shajahan was the prime target of Anvar as the regional editor continuously ensured quality reporting on violations involved by the MLA, causing him severe damage.
At the same time, many CPI(M) leaders and their cyber supporters are targeting the reporter Noufal.
Currently the district correspondent in Kannur, Noufal landed the CPI(M) in a tight spot on many occasions by exposing their links to political murders, scams, gold smuggling, and drug peddling.
Barely a week ago, the Kannur district secretary of the CPI(M) snubbed Noufal at an open press meeting and warned him of consequences if he continued to engage in similar kinds of reports.
During the first stint of the Vijayan government, the channel ran a series of investigative reports exposing land encroachment involving then transport minister and NCP leader Thomas Chandy.
The reports by correspondent TV Prasad were supported by strong evidence, resulting in Chandy resigning from the post.
However, it also marked an aggressive social media campaign by the cyber wing of the CPI(M), which levelled false allegations against the channel and Prasad.
A channel-owned vehicle was damaged when CPI(M) cadres pelted stones at its Alappuzha office at night.
“We wish to identify our channel as a news establishment always preferring to be in the Opposition benches. We will continue the same approach even if the Congress and the UDF return to power. And we have no different approach to the BJP,” said Sindhu.
We supported the CPIM) and the LDF whenever they attempted something in the interests of the whole society. We are professionals and have no hatred for anybody,” she added.
When the UDF moved an adjournment motion in the Kerala Assembly on Monday over the police raid on the Asianet office, Vijayan contended there was no need for adjourning the House to discuss the issue because freedom of the press had not been infringed in this case.
Speaker AN Shamseer denied permission for the motion, and the Opposition staged a walkout in protest.
In his speech opposing the adjournment motion, Vijayan contended that the LDF had always fought for press freedom and would continue to do so.
Vijayan also said that the channel’s alleged conduct of disseminating a fake video by misusing a minor girl could not be seen as journalism and, therefore, would not entitle it to the protections under the law.
Disputing the contentions of the chief minister, Satheesan contended that the government action against the channel indicated the LDF’s “intolerance” towards criticism.
Satheesan and former leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala said the video did not show the girl’s face and was probably an illustrated visual. They said that had the channel mentioned it was an illustrative video, these problems would not have arisen.
Nevertheless, the steps taken by the state government were “vindictive and targeted” against the channel for running news about certain issues within the CPI(M) in Kannur, the bastion of the Left Front, Satheesan said.
“These are intimidatory tactics,” he added.
In the meantime, those who support Asianet are calling out fabricated news items carried by the CPI(M) mouthpiece Desabhimani and its television channel Kairali, especially on some social workers who supported the anti-Adani protests of fish workers at Vizhinjam and the widow of a Gulf-returnee who died by suicide after a CPI(M)-run local body refused to give mandatory clearance and licence to a convention hall he built, citing flimsy reasons.
“If Asianet created fake news, the CPI(M) has the right to expose them using democratic methods. But here, we see a vilification campaign targeting journalists who are critical in their approaches. And the CPI(M) leaders believe fake news is their monopoly, and some news organisations support them. Journalistic integrity applies to all,” social observer and political commentator Azad Malayattil told South First.
Just a few days ago, it had summoned for questioning the channel’s a popular news anchor and associate editor Vinu John for a comment he allegedly made against a senior leader of the ruling CPI(M).
“In general, the CPI(M) and Vijayan strongly dislike media and journalism. When he became chief minister, Vijayan denied journalists permission to enter and freely move around the state secretariat. On one occasion, he shouted at journalists to get out. His dislike started when the media reported on the SNC Lavalin corruption case against him. Now, the government is targeting Asianet to divert public focus from many other issues heavily damaging the government’s image,” MV Vineetha, president of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists, told South First.
It was journalist and Leftist intellectual Sashikumar who established the first channel in any regional language in India, Asianet.
In the beginning, the Left parties identified themselves with the channel. With the ownership changing over the years and the channel taking aggressive stands against those in power, the CPI(M) found in it an enemy.
“In print, Malayala Manorama is always the target of the Left because of its critical approach to it. Among television channels, Asianet is now the prime target. But we can cite occasions when other media houses were targeted on similar grounds,” said Vineetha.