What Press Freedom? Government Has Always Controlled TV News in TN

TN’s TV news media has always been tightly controlled by the government. How did it come to this?

Updated
Explainers
5 min read
Has TV news ever been free from govt control in TN?
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Snapshot

In what is seen as an unprecedented and shocking move, the TN government-owned Arasu Cable down-ranked Puthiya Thalaimurai, a Tamil language news channel from the 120s to 499. FIRs were filed against the channel and one of the guests in a talk show aired by it.

Is this yet another knee-jerk reaction by the government to curb voices of dissent, like it did with the Sterlite protesters? Is the TN government’s control over television media in the state absolute? And does it spread to the press and people?

To begin with, the blacking out (and later, down-ranking) of Puthiya Thalaimurai isn’t unprecedented.

What Press Freedom? Government Has Always Controlled TV News in TN

  1. 1. Freedom of Press a Myth in TN?

    Puthiya Thalaimurai, a Tamil news channel, has been pushed by the state-controlled Arasu Cable, from a channel in the 120s to 499. All thanks to a talk show on 'development in Tamil Nadu', which discussed the government's handling of the anti-Sterlite protests, among other things.

    The Chief Minister of TN Edappadi Palanisamy defended this move, as also the government's decision to file FIRs against the guest (director Ameer) and the channel under section 153 (A) and 505 on charges of promoting enmity between different communities, and different groups on the basis of religion.

    Journalists and the public are seeing this as a lockdown on the freedom of the press, specifically TV news media in Tamil Nadu.

    Too busy to read? Listen to the story here.

    Expand
  2. 2. Precedences

    In fact, this isn't the first time Puthiya Thalaimurai has been blacked-out, or scaled down into a low bandwidth channel with poor or no signal.

    1. In 2014, the channel aired a video story on the collapse of a building in Moulivakkam (Chennai), in which over 60 people died. It was reported that construction of the 13-storey building was given the go-ahead without the relevant safety checks by the government.

    A little while after the package was aired, Puthiya Thalaimurai was blacked out in Trichy, Madurai, Coimbatore, and other cities in which Arasu Cable has a monopoly. It was later revived.

    2. On 7 April 2017, Puthiya Thalaimurai aired a 'people's mood' poll on who would win the RK Nagar by-polls. The OPS camp emerged victorious while Sasikala was shown in a bad light. The channel was taken off air in 15 districts, starting with Madurai.

    Television media in Tamil Nadu has always been controlled by the government, either for political reasons (by AIADMK’s Arasu Cable), or purely for economics (DMK’s Sumangali Cable).
    Expand
  3. 3. Government-Backed Cable and Broadcasting

    Right from when regional television grew into a powerful medium, Tamil Nadu’s programming and distribution have been under some form of direct or indirect government control.

    Sun TV, the first Tamil channel, was launched in 1993. Owned by Kalanidhi Maran (Karunanidhi's nephew), it gained content monopoly across the state thanks to a first-mover advantage. When the DMK came to power in 1996, Kalanidhi staged a coup on distribution in the cable industry. Within a few months, Maran's 'Sumangali Cable Vision' established a monopoly of distribution across TN. Most individual cable distribution owners lost their businesses.

    Kalyanasundaram, owner of Polimer TV, a popular GEC, lost his business of cable distribution across 18 districts to SCV overnight.

    For decades, right up until 2011, when Jayalalitha announced her plan to launch Arasu cable, SVC reigned supreme, with the top 10 slots of the TRP all going to the Sun group.

    Except for a brief period of time (2006 - 2011), when Karunanidhi had a tiff with Kalanidhi Maran, the DMK-SUN TV duo together influenced both content and distribution across the board, allowing only those channels and content that made economic sense to survive. This was a time when 24/7 regional news channels didn't exist yet.

    SUN network currently owns 33 TV channels, 45 radio stations, DTH service, the SCV cable distribution system and Sun Pictures, one of the largest film production and distribution houses in India.

    Expand
  4. 4. Government-Owned Cable and Broadcasting

    Soon after the DMK-backed SUN TV was launched (1993), Jayalalithaa launched Jaya TV (1999), a GEC-cum-propaganda megaphone for the AIADMK. This was followed by Karunanidhi’s Kalaignar TV in 2007.

    Of the large and exponentially growing cable and DTH subscriber base in TN, a major chunk (a little over 60%) of the TRPs still goes to the channels under SUN network and Kalaignar network. Jaya TV, currently owned by Sasikala’s family, though launched before Kalaignar, does not enjoy such a large subscriber base, simply because it was only in 2011 that Jayalalithaa came to power.

    Regardless of which party (DMK or AIADMK) comes to power, SUN and Kalaignar networks will continue to enjoy a stranglehold on monopoly of content over the Tamil-speaking audience.

    Which is why the AIADMK government now seeks to take over the cable distribution system to counter this.

    While the onus of control under Kalanithi Maran’s DMK backed Sumangali Cable Vision was economic, Arasu Cable exercises and/or abuses control on the basis of politics.

    Puthiya Thalaimurai's choice of topic and guests is based on the anti-BJP feeling in the state, that is good for TRPs. The current party in power in TN is openly pro-BJP. Arasu Cable's move against Puthiya Thalaimurai is therefore, not surprising, since it was the members of the BJP among the audience, who Ameer, the guest, had upset.

    Of the 12.5 million TV homes in TN, Arasu Cable (TACTV) controls over 7 million. It is only in April last year that Arasu Cable received the license to provide digital services. The majority of the subscribers across the state, therefore, are still analog.

    It is not illegal to pull down a channel to a random, low signal number because unlike with DTH, there are no categories (news, entertainment, kids, etc) in analog. While Puthiya Thalaimurai officially still exists in Arasu Cable, it is inaccessible in most areas, and will be blurry in many others.

    By the early 2000s, the DMK Govt had distributed 1.62 crore TV sets for free, with subscriptions to SUN TV. To counter this, the AIADMK has been providing free Set Top Boxes since September last year. Clearly, control over TN’s electorate seems to lie within their TV sets.
    Expand
  5. 5. Only TV Media, or Is All of TN’s Press Controlled?

    Print journalism has never been subject to censorship, although the AIADMK has historically resorted to legal intimidation. Presently though, Dinamalar, Dinathanthi and Dinamani, the three leading Tamil dailies are all either neutral or pro-government.

    The AIADMK and the media in TN have been historically antagonistic. It was under MGR's rule that Vikatan magazine's founder Balasubramanian was jailed in 1987. Jayalalitha's infamy for the dozens of defamation cases against the press (print), both vernacular and English (The Hindu), and the multi-full-page ads to explain her stance is legendary.

    It is therefore no surprise that the same feeling is transferred to the electronic media as well.

    The only strong anti-government voice in print over the last decade has been from yellow journals. The accounts of political intimidation, incarceration and threats from both the governments (DMK and AIADMK) on Nakkheeran (political investigative weekly magazine) have been published and are by now common knowledge.

    Expand
  6. 6. Press or People – Whose Freedom is on the Line?

    1. After the Jallikattu protests at Marina beach ended in violence and lathi-charge, the beach and the Besant Nagar beach were cordoned off, and Section 144 imposed. This lockdown continues unofficially till date. Crowd mobilisation for a cause in these areas is still impossible, whether over the Cauvery issue, or for Sterlite.

    2. There have been over 30 arrests (and counting) of protesters and prospective protesters of the Chennai-Salem Green Corridor proposal of a six-eight lane highway within a month.

    3. On Sunday, 24 June, the Raj Bhavan warned the DMk of legal action if they tried to stage a protest at the Raj Bhawan against the Governor.

    The current government is visibly more knee-jerk and vehement in its reaction to any form of dissent or protest, not just by the press, but the people themselves. This is unprecedented, and worrying.

    Liked this story? We'll send you more. Subscribe to The Quint's newsletter and get selected stories delivered to your inbox every day. Click to get started.

    The Quint is available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, click to join.

    Expand

Freedom of Press a Myth in TN?

Puthiya Thalaimurai, a Tamil news channel, has been pushed by the state-controlled Arasu Cable, from a channel in the 120s to 499. All thanks to a talk show on 'development in Tamil Nadu', which discussed the government's handling of the anti-Sterlite protests, among other things.

The Chief Minister of TN Edappadi Palanisamy defended this move, as also the government's decision to file FIRs against the guest (director Ameer) and the channel under section 153 (A) and 505 on charges of promoting enmity between different communities, and different groups on the basis of religion.

Journalists and the public are seeing this as a lockdown on the freedom of the press, specifically TV news media in Tamil Nadu.

Too busy to read? Listen to the story here.

Precedences

In fact, this isn't the first time Puthiya Thalaimurai has been blacked-out, or scaled down into a low bandwidth channel with poor or no signal.

1. In 2014, the channel aired a video story on the collapse of a building in Moulivakkam (Chennai), in which over 60 people died. It was reported that construction of the 13-storey building was given the go-ahead without the relevant safety checks by the government.

A little while after the package was aired, Puthiya Thalaimurai was blacked out in Trichy, Madurai, Coimbatore, and other cities in which Arasu Cable has a monopoly. It was later revived.

2. On 7 April 2017, Puthiya Thalaimurai aired a 'people's mood' poll on who would win the RK Nagar by-polls. The OPS camp emerged victorious while Sasikala was shown in a bad light. The channel was taken off air in 15 districts, starting with Madurai.

Television media in Tamil Nadu has always been controlled by the government, either for political reasons (by AIADMK’s Arasu Cable), or purely for economics (DMK’s Sumangali Cable).

Government-Backed Cable and Broadcasting

Right from when regional television grew into a powerful medium, Tamil Nadu’s programming and distribution have been under some form of direct or indirect government control.

Sun TV, the first Tamil channel, was launched in 1993. Owned by Kalanidhi Maran (Karunanidhi's nephew), it gained content monopoly across the state thanks to a first-mover advantage. When the DMK came to power in 1996, Kalanidhi staged a coup on distribution in the cable industry. Within a few months, Maran's 'Sumangali Cable Vision' established a monopoly of distribution across TN. Most individual cable distribution owners lost their businesses.

Kalyanasundaram, owner of Polimer TV, a popular GEC, lost his business of cable distribution across 18 districts to SCV overnight.

For decades, right up until 2011, when Jayalalitha announced her plan to launch Arasu cable, SVC reigned supreme, with the top 10 slots of the TRP all going to the Sun group.

Except for a brief period of time (2006 - 2011), when Karunanidhi had a tiff with Kalanidhi Maran, the DMK-SUN TV duo together influenced both content and distribution across the board, allowing only those channels and content that made economic sense to survive. This was a time when 24/7 regional news channels didn't exist yet.

SUN network currently owns 33 TV channels, 45 radio stations, DTH service, the SCV cable distribution system and Sun Pictures, one of the largest film production and distribution houses in India.

Government-Owned Cable and Broadcasting

Soon after the DMK-backed SUN TV was launched (1993), Jayalalithaa launched Jaya TV (1999), a GEC-cum-propaganda megaphone for the AIADMK. This was followed by Karunanidhi’s Kalaignar TV in 2007.

Of the large and exponentially growing cable and DTH subscriber base in TN, a major chunk (a little over 60%) of the TRPs still goes to the channels under SUN network and Kalaignar network. Jaya TV, currently owned by Sasikala’s family, though launched before Kalaignar, does not enjoy such a large subscriber base, simply because it was only in 2011 that Jayalalithaa came to power.

Regardless of which party (DMK or AIADMK) comes to power, SUN and Kalaignar networks will continue to enjoy a stranglehold on monopoly of content over the Tamil-speaking audience.

Which is why the AIADMK government now seeks to take over the cable distribution system to counter this.

While the onus of control under Kalanithi Maran’s DMK backed Sumangali Cable Vision was economic, Arasu Cable exercises and/or abuses control on the basis of politics.

Puthiya Thalaimurai's choice of topic and guests is based on the anti-BJP feeling in the state, that is good for TRPs. The current party in power in TN is openly pro-BJP. Arasu Cable's move against Puthiya Thalaimurai is therefore, not surprising, since it was the members of the BJP among the audience, who Ameer, the guest, had upset.

Of the 12.5 million TV homes in TN, Arasu Cable (TACTV) controls over 7 million. It is only in April last year that Arasu Cable received the license to provide digital services. The majority of the subscribers across the state, therefore, are still analog.

It is not illegal to pull down a channel to a random, low signal number because unlike with DTH, there are no categories (news, entertainment, kids, etc) in analog. While Puthiya Thalaimurai officially still exists in Arasu Cable, it is inaccessible in most areas, and will be blurry in many others.

By the early 2000s, the DMK Govt had distributed 1.62 crore TV sets for free, with subscriptions to SUN TV. To counter this, the AIADMK has been providing free Set Top Boxes since September last year. Clearly, control over TN’s electorate seems to lie within their TV sets.

Only TV Media, or Is All of TN’s Press Controlled?

Print journalism has never been subject to censorship, although the AIADMK has historically resorted to legal intimidation. Presently though, Dinamalar, Dinathanthi and Dinamani, the three leading Tamil dailies are all either neutral or pro-government.

The AIADMK and the media in TN have been historically antagonistic. It was under MGR's rule that Vikatan magazine's founder Balasubramanian was jailed in 1987. Jayalalitha's infamy for the dozens of defamation cases against the press (print), both vernacular and English (The Hindu), and the multi-full-page ads to explain her stance is legendary.

It is therefore no surprise that the same feeling is transferred to the electronic media as well.

The only strong anti-government voice in print over the last decade has been from yellow journals. The accounts of political intimidation, incarceration and threats from both the governments (DMK and AIADMK) on Nakkheeran (political investigative weekly magazine) have been published and are by now common knowledge.

Press or People – Whose Freedom is on the Line?

1. After the Jallikattu protests at Marina beach ended in violence and lathi-charge, the beach and the Besant Nagar beach were cordoned off, and Section 144 imposed. This lockdown continues unofficially till date. Crowd mobilisation for a cause in these areas is still impossible, whether over the Cauvery issue, or for Sterlite.

2. There have been over 30 arrests (and counting) of protesters and prospective protesters of the Chennai-Salem Green Corridor proposal of a six-eight lane highway within a month.

3. On Sunday, 24 June, the Raj Bhavan warned the DMk of legal action if they tried to stage a protest at the Raj Bhawan against the Governor.

The current government is visibly more knee-jerk and vehement in its reaction to any form of dissent or protest, not just by the press, but the people themselves. This is unprecedented, and worrying.

Liked this story? We'll send you more. Subscribe to The Quint's newsletter and get selected stories delivered to your inbox every day. Click to get started.

The Quint is available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, click to join.

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