As Asianet News’ Kozhikode bureau got down to charting its day on 5 March, a Sunday, police personnel swooped on their premises on PT Usha Road in large numbers. When the officers proceeded with their ‘search’ without producing a warrant, the resident editor or RE Shajahan K was told that they were utilising their ‘special powers’ to carry out the raid. The ‘search’ yielded nothing incriminating, although the overreach was clearly meant to be an act of intimidation.
This was preceded by the raiding of its Kochi regional office by cadres from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)’s student wing, the Students Federation of India (SFI), indicating how all of this was orchestrated by Kerala’s ruling party. Generally, the first thing flung at Asianet News to discredit it is that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar is its majority shareholder. But it is fairly well-known that he has little say in its editorial policy.
So, why does Asianet News keep getting the CPI-M’s goat?
The only explanation is that it has been effective in discharging its bounden duty as part of the fourth estate, and consistently tops the viewership metrics as part of its relentless adversarial journalism. The antipathy of the Marxists also extends to the Malayala Manorama daily and other Kerala news outlets, which have been collectively dubbed ‘right-wing’ by the party and its social media propagandists.
With the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) weakened after consecutive losses in the assembly elections, the CPI-M reckons it is the media that effectively acts as a check and balance, fact-checking and blunting its narrative constantly. Before venturing any further, it is important to get to the bottom of the Asianet News imbroglio.
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An elementary error
At the core of the issue is an interview of a 14-year-old girl that was featured in Kannur-based senior correspondent Naufal Bin Yousaf’s series on narcotics that was aired in November 2022. She claimed that she had been abused after being forced to use drugs and that 10 other girls like her were victims of the drug mafia. However, what was aired was edited snippets from an earlier interview conducted by Saniyo Manomi, another reporter from the channel’s Kannur bureau.
Now, it is common practice for news channels to run visuals of previously aired footage for analytical programmes. But here, some stock footage was also used with the audio, which was deemed misleading. It appeared, because of these visuals, that Naufal was interviewing the girl instead of Manomi. CPI-M supporters claimed that the interview had been staged and that it was fake news.
In general course, the remedy would have been to approach the News Broadcasters & Digital Association (of which Asianet News is a member), which has ample powers to enforce ethical standards in reporting. But certain people had an axe to grind, and so this error of judgment was sought to be weaponised.
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CPI-M’s grouse with Yousaf
Naufal has been bothering the CPI-M’s Kannur unit for a while now, with breaking stories that are invariably followed up. From the Payyanur election fund misappropriation to intra-party feuds, Yousaf has been at the forefront of reporting on the party’s cover-up of various issues and punching holes in its narratives.
His latest ‘transgression’, as far as the CPI-M was concerned, was reporting on its youth wing leader M Shajar. The Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) member’s association with the likes of Akash Thillankeri (first accused in the murder of a youth Congress secretary) and the gold-smuggling operations carried out by criminals formerly associated with the party were highlighted by Yousaf. When CPI-M officially denied this, Yousaf telecast the phone transcript of his conversation with Manu Thomas—DYFI Kannur president and the complainant from within CPI-M ranks—where the latter was heard confirming it, thus leaving the party with egg on its face.
At an ‘explanatory’ meeting of its local committee unit in Thillankeri, broadcast live on CPI-M Kerala mouthpiece Kairali News, Shajar was heard threatening Yousaf (on a Kairali News live telecast on 21 February) with dire consequences. This was followed up by senior leader P Jayarajan’s broadside against Yousaf, followed by district secretary MV Jayarajan’s turn.
And when Akash Thillankeri was produced in court, he was heard threatening Yousaf with ominous-sounding words such as “haven’t you suffered enough?”, an incident telecast live on Asianet News. Later, MV Jayarajan also likened Naufal Bin Yousaf to ‘Bin Laden’ in a racist attack on him.
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PV Anwar has an axe to grind with Shajahan
Shajahan K has an even longer history of being in the CPI-M’s bad books – which once resulted in him getting publicly slapped by P Jayarajan in Kannur. For now, however, the Left-backed Nilambur MLA P.V. Anwar has been nursing a grouse against him.
Shajahan hosts a weekly show, Malabar Manual, on the channel where the flashy Anwar is often criticised. In any case, the Kozhikode bureau of Asianet News has been at the forefront of exposing the moneybag MLA’s alleged flouting of laws on multiple occasions.
A few days before discrepancies in Yousaf’s report were brought to public notice by the Left ecosystem, Anwar had posted on Facebook that he would “fix” Asianet News. But none in the channel had any inkling of what would hit them.
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Internal sabotage at play
So, what connects Shajahan to Yousaf’s video?
In what seems reminiscent of the alleged internal sabotageat The Wire by Devesh Kumar, Asianet News has been led down by its own Kannur reporter Saniyo Manomi, who was with the Kozhikode bureau earlier. The case made out against Shajahan – based on Anwar’s complaint to Kerala Director-General of Police Anil Kant and corroborated by Manomi’s statement – is that the edited video footage has been filmed in his cabin, which Shajahan flat-out denies. What Shajahan failed to figure out sooner was that Manomi’s husband, Julius Nikithas, was on Anwar’s payroll.
Now, Nikithas is the son of high-profile CPI-M couple K.K. Lathika (former-Kuttiadi MLA) and its Kozhikode district secretary P. Mohanan — whose arrest in 2012 in T.P. Chandrasekharan’s murder case was reported by Shajahan even before the cops confirmed it.
It appears that multiple revenge plots were executed using Yousaf’s error of judgment.
But it doesn’t end there. Even Sindhu Sooryakumar, the executive editor of Asianet News, has been made a party in the case, possibly because she hosts the hard-hitting show, Cover Story, which has been in the CPI-M’s crosshairs.
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At the heart of the matter is dual loyalties professed by certain journalists in Kerala. It is common knowledge that CPI-M has its cadres placed as informers in many media houses in the state. At one point in time, it was common practice for the CPI-M to deploy its cadres to infiltrate other organisations (not limited to media houses) to fulfil their agendas. It so happens that most journalists in Kerala have done their time in the SFI and taken up journalism as an extension of their activism.
While many of them become thorough professionals after a certain duration– Shajahan himself being a case in point as an ex-SFI leader – others continue to profess dual loyalties. In the pre-liberalisation era, media houses such as Malayala Manorama and Deepika conducted extensive background checks to ensure that CPI-M did not infiltrate its ranks.
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CPI-M Agenda: Discredit the media
On 15 March, the non-bailable Section 83 (2) of the Juvenile Justice Act was invoked against Yousaf, Shajahan, Sindhu Sooryakumar and a fourth employee of Asianet News. This was after a POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act) case was charged against them initially. The idea seems to be to further intimidate and make an example of the journalists.
On 18 March, the Kozhikode additional district and sessions court granted relief to the Asianet News journalists from arrest. “There are no allegations of grievous offences, as contemplated under the POCSO Act, against these petitioners. In a democratic country like India, which gives liberty to the fourth estate, media personnel cannot be jailed alleging criminal offences. If they commit any offence, it can only be decided after a fair trial,” the court stated.
This is clearly an extension of the CPI-M’s brazen targeting of the media houses not beholden to it. The Left cadres have coined the term ‘Veshyanet’ for Asianet, which sounds remarkably similar to General VK Singh’s ‘presstitute’. Discrediting Asianet News is part of a larger agenda of discrediting the media in general, as a free and fair press is the only obstacle preventing CPI-M from getting away with all kinds of excesses.
The author is a Kerala-based journalist and columnist. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)