With the stopping of government advertisements for Sakshi daily in the wake of elections which are crucial and decisive for the future of YSR Congress Party and the ruling Congress, the Kiran Kumar government has resorted to abuse of power.
Andhra Pradesh Information and Public Relations Commissioner R. V. Chandravadan issued an order on May 9 asking the government departments, agencies, public sector undertakings, corporations, and organisations to “withhold releasing of advertisements and notifications” to the daily with immediate effect “in public interest.” The order said: “It has come to the notice of the government that the CBI has filed a charge sheet against M/s Jagati Publications (Private) Limited, publishers of Sakshi Telugu news daily and TV channel on March 31, 2012. The government, after careful examination of the matter in the public interest, has decided to withhold releasing of advertisements, notifications, etc”. The order added that the ban would be in force till the charges against the firms were cleared.
As part of its investigation into Jagan’s disproportionate assets case, the CBI has seized 46 files related to advertisements released to Sakshi from the I&PR Department.
It was during the regime of Jagan’s father, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, the government issued an order on April 24, 2008, empanelling Sakshi daily for government advertisements, by relaxing certain rules. While Sakshi newspaper was launched on March 23, 2008, Sakshi TV went on air on March 1, 2009. According to media reports, of the State government budget of about Rs. 200 crore for the print media for 2008-11, the lion's share of over Rs. 101.63 crore (over 50%) was allotted to Sakshi newspaper. Similarly, of the nearly Rs. 40-crore advertisements for the electronic media in the last three years, Sakshi TV received advertisements worth over Rs. 17 crore. "Clearly, the two Sakshi media received undue preferential treatment during the YSR era and a little after that," explained a news report in The Times of India of May 11.
Apart from the advertisements released by the I&PR Department, Sakshi newspaper and TV received ads from various other State agencies such as APSRTC, APTransco, AP Genco, Singareni Collieries, Irrigation, Roads and Buildings, Excise, and Police departments etc., netting a revenue of over Rs. 300 crore during the last four years, as reported.
Usually, rules prohibit the government from issuing ads to a newspaper until it runs for six months and obtains recognition from the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity of the Union Government. This was not considered. Even otherwise, doling out the State resource by Rajasekha Reddy to Sakshi, owned by his son Jagan, was a personal bias which no law would approve. Surprisingly, this was not questioned. Only when the Congress government decided to investigate the corruption charges against Jaganmohan Reddy, this issue was brought out.
At present, Sakshi is an established newspaper claiming to have the largest circulation even surpassing Eenadu. As per the rules of the Information department it is quite eligible to get ads on par with other eligible dailies such as Eenadu. Nowhere is it stipulated that if a charge sheet is filed against the owner of a media organisation, the government should stop its advertisements to the paper concerned. Even if such a rule exists, it cannot stand the test of Constitution. It is a case of the State flouting the rules to do undue favours to a media house at one time and deny it its legitimate share at another time.
No right to govt. ads
Although the advertisement revenue is the staple food for every media, no media organisation has the right to advertisements from the State or any other client. The advertiser has the right to choose the medium. It has nothing to do with freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by the Constitution under Article 19(1)(a).
In Dainik Samband v State of Tripura (AIR 1989 Gau 30) it was held that discriminatory allotment of Government advertisements to different newspapers of same category by the State government would impair both the fundamental rights under Articles 14 and 19. What is most relevant in the context of stopping of advertisements to Sakshi is the case of its rival, Eenadu. When Eenadu questioned (Ushodaya Publication v State of AP, AIR 1981 AP 109) non-release of advertisements by the Congress government because of its anti-Congress critical writings, it was held that newspapers had no right to ads from Government, and the government had every authority to choose the newspaper for its ads. At the same time, it was held in this case that the government had no power to distribute largess through advertisements, it should not be arbitrary or discriminatory to muzzle a section of the press which criticises its policies and programmes. It was further explained in Gulam Nabi v State of Jammu & Kashmir (AIR 1990 J & K 13) that if the State chose to stop advertisements to all newspapers, none could have a grievance against it.
At the same time the State cannot venture to limit or curb the space allotted by media for ads in the name of regulating the news-advertisement ratio in “public interest”. The Supreme Court held in the case of Bennett Coleman v Union of India (AIR 1973 SC 106): “The restrictions imposed discriminating against bigger dailies while curbing advertisements in a newspaper, the State must keep within permissible limits not only Clause 6 but also Clause 2 of Article 19, for advertisements are a substantial source of revenue for a newspaper so that if the restrictions imposed by the State unduly curb the advertisement revenue of a newspaper, it would constitute a restriction of the freedom of expression itself.”
Relying on a common investor
It is relevant to look into the issue of ownership with reference to these two media giants. Sakshi alleged a nexus between Eenadu, Reliance, and Chandrababu Naidu of TDP. Eenadu made an official announcement in January that its 100 per cent stake of 10 ETV channels – except Telugu ETV and ETV2- would be transferred to Reliance Industries Limited, in lieu of its 40 per cent stake in Ushodaya Enterprises. In Telugu ETV and ETV2 news channel, Ramoji Rao would have 51 per cent controlling stake, while 49 per cent would be with Reliance. Saakshi alleged once again that Mukesh Ambani invested in Ushodaya Enterprises through Nimesh Kampani for the benefits extended by Chandrababu to Reliance in KG Basin. Sakshi also questioned the value of the companies and as to why Reliance was paying so much for so little. Sakshi also alleged that if the court cases against Ramoji Rao were proved, he would have to pay Rs. 7,700 crores as fine, and hence his businesses were not safe.
It is further interesting to note that TDP leader Revanth Reddy, MLA, said in December 2011 that the same Nimesh Kampany invested in Jagan’s Sakshi media group. Explaining the flow of funds, Revanth alleged that Nimesh Kampani units (J M financials, Latitude, Merchantile Pvt ltd) had invested Rs. 27.65 crore in the Metaphor Real Estate and Projects Ltd. of Patluri Vara Prasad, who was close to YSR, which in turn had invested Rs.10 crore in Jagati Publications of Y.S. Jagan. This takes the governance to the wider and significant issues of media freedom vis-à-vis the rule of law especially when the freedom guaranteed to individual citizen is being ruined by corporate giants.
The proximity of two media houses with the government, their ownership patterns, sources of funds including their transfer to companies which operate as frontal agencies of one major corporate giant, in this case Reliance, involvement in other activities giving rise to several criminal charges and investigations, bring forth the serious issues of democracy and public interest. The link between seizure of accounts and stopping of advertisements to Sakshi and the prosecution for disproportionate assets is an issue beyond the scope of media freedom. While seizure of accounts could be illegal if ultimately proved in a court of law, stopping of ads can be viewed as potential harm to freedom of press of a media firm owned by a political rival. These politically motivated actions finally affect the freedom of expression of people both as voters in constituencies going for elections, and in general as citizens with a right to know.