On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with YS Jaganmohan Reddy’s decision to empower department secretaries to sue media houses for defamatory, baseless and false reports. Because the cornerstone of journalism is truth. And if the media is found publishing or broadcasting lies with a view to sully his government’s image, he is well within his rights to take action. Unless it is the media’s case to say it should be allowed to get away with slur and fake news.
The order read : “Government hereby accord permission to delegate powers to the secretaries of respective departments to issue rejoinders, file complaints and lodge appropriate cases, if need be, through public prosecutor against defamatory news items published/telecast/posted in print/electronic/social media pertaining to their respective departments after following due process of law.” The order was signed by T Vijay Kumar Reddy, ex-officio Special secretary to the government, Information and Public Relations Department.
The news that this order is on its way was leaked on 16 October. What followed was an uproar after which the Andhra Pradesh government clarified it was not its intention to harass journalists. It said it had only decentralised the powers hitherto vested with the Commissioner of Information and Public Relations. It said filing of cases will be the last resort and that the process will include issuing a rejoinder, ensuring that the correction is given the same prominence as the wrongly published or broadcast news was given.
To understand this order, it is necessary to understand the context. It comes in an atmosphere where the Telugu media is clearly divided in Andhra Pradesh on political lines. Just like the Sakshi media house owned by Jagan’s family is openly anti-Telugu Desam, media groups like Andhra Jyothi-ABN, Eenadu and TV5, many believe, are hostile to the YSRCP. These three organisations have been in the line of fire of the YSRCP even before the party came to power and it has only got worse since May 2019.
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But should Jagan have taken this path, that gives him the image of using the brute force of the government against the media? To put it simply, he has been poorly advised. Instead, he should have done five other things.
1. Develop a thick skin. The CM cannot wish people to say things that please him all the time. For that, he has the publicity wing of the government as well as the Sakshi media group. Learn to separate the false news from genuine criticism of his policies. The danger with this blanket power is that any criticism will be labeled as an attempt to tarnish image, followed by a threat to haul the journalist and the media house to court. This will lead to self-censorship by genuine journalists who would not wish to spend more time in a courtroom instead of a newsroom. That will be a disservice to society.
2. Jagan came to power despite the negative campaign that was mounted against him by pro-Naidu media. That should have been proof enough that the people have the wisdom to know over a period of time what is the truth and what isn’t. That the media is not so powerful enough to decide who wins the elections.
3. This order pertains not just to mainstream media but also the unruly world of social media. Jagan is trying to police a medium that follows no rules, has no structure and one that inflicts damage by propagating malicious and false news. Whatsapp gives it oxygen and an air of credibility with its distribution at the click of a button and the digital mob lynching that follows, makes such mischief go viral. Many of these mischief-makers are sponsored by political parties. Jagan is obviously worried about the reach and the impact of such news. But how will Jagan ever prevent such news from finding takers? How many Re-tweets and shares will he take action against?
4. All Jagan has to do is to beef up his Media cell, ask them to be more proactive in responding to developments. The problem is that the government’s outfit still operates in a press release template, which is too slow for the 24×7 nature of news where the damage is done even before you can react. So far, political parties in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere are known to tackle criticism by setting up abusive trolls to go behind journalists who are simply doing their job and cast aspersions on them, accusing them of being on the payroll of the opposite camp. What it needs to do more effectively is to put out counter facts, in case the reportage has got facts wrong.
5. This order is proof that despite appointing several advisors – all of them from the Sakshi stable – to handle the media and even a Public Relations agency at a huge cost, Jagan feels his government is receiving negative coverage. But this order has only hurt his image and given the media a handle to beat him with.
While it is obvious that Jagan wants to convey the impression that his regime is unfairly targeted by mischievious reportage, this order was not the way to go about it. This Government Order was most unnecessary and gags dissemination of information, thereby impinging on freedom of press and freedom to know. It has ended up creating a negative vibe about the Jagan government. Time to throw it into the dustbin.