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Scam heat threatens to scorch fourth estate
Businessmen, politicians hit back to ‘Discipline’ media
By Nantoo Banerjee
Never before has Indian media come under such heavy fire simultaneously from high-profile billionaire businessmen and powerful politicians holding high offices at the Centre and states. During the infamous emergency period (1976-77), Indian media was barred from reporting or commenting on anything that would paint the government and the Congress party in the negative. Now, with a spate of financial scandals and corruption at high places unveiling themselves, linking both the government and business houses, the scamsters have chosen to take it out on the media for printing or airing such scam stories and judicial proceedings against those involved, since they are unable to fight the statutory authorities or the original official scam-busters.

Barely weeks ago Congress elite Salman Khurshid, the country’s newly appointed foreign affairs minister, filed damage suits against a well-known New Delhi media house to courts in India and London, for bursting an alleged financial irregularity with regard to the use of public funds by a disability NGO run by his wife Louise, of which he is the chairman. Now billionaire businessman Naveen Jindal, also a Congressman and MP, has filed an FIR with Delhi Police against the top management of a popular Hindi TV news channel for allegedly demanding a massive Rs. 100 crore in advertisement support to the channel in exchange for dropping negative reports about his company’s complicity in ‘Coalgate’.

Close on the heels of the open Jindal-Zee accusations and counter accusations, with Zee News serving a Rs. 150 crore defamation notice on Jindal Steel and Power Limited for making false allegations, billionaire Bangalorean business braggart Vijay Mallya, a self-declared NRI, spat venom against Indian media as a whole for projecting him and his grounded Kingfisher Airlines in a poor light and blowing the airlines crisis “out of proportion”. Mallya held a veiled threat to take some of the large unnamed media houses to court but for the existence of “no libel law in India” and as such “nothing you can do to bring them to book.” Unlike Salman Khurshid and Naveen Jindal, Mallya refrained from spelling out the contents of damaging media reports he was frowning at.

What are Vijay Mallya’s specific complaints against the media? Were the media reports wrong about the cash-strapped Kingfisher’s inability to pay its employees for months putting them under severe financial and mental stress; strike and suspension of operation in Kingfisher; suicide by one its financially broke employees; running around Rs. 6,500 crore debt liability with nationalized banks; and DGCA’s letter blocking flying licence to the airline before it is able to specify to the government the financial recourse it is going to take to address the current crisis?

Ironically, Mallya too is an MP, one of the 16 business community members in 245-seat Rajya Sabha. Supported by both Congress and BJP, Mallya was elected to Rajya Sabha from Karnataka, only last year. Upon his election, Mallya, known for his lavishly fast lifestyle and attachment to private jets, luxury yachts, horseracing and Formula-1 car racing, was quoted as telling the media upon his election, "I am not an MP for status or prestige. That I have as the chairman of a successful business group…. This new avenue is a good platform to serve a wider section of society, especially the rural folk.”

Call it a coincidence or a new pattern of attack on Indian media that both politician Khurshid and businessman Jindal have openly bragged about “counter sting” operations they conducted against the ‘expose’ by the respective media houses to prove their corruption allegations wrong. Many feel that “counter sting” against media outlets may soon emerge as a new weapon to muzzle the critical voice of media as independent investigator into corruption and unlawful activities by powerful politicians and businessmen. However, despite a strong effort by legal brains appearing for the Khurshids, the Delhi High Court had denied interim relief to Louise, who had filed a suit for injunction and damages against TV Today Network for airing reports on the financial irregularities committed by their Dr Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust. The court declined to pass any order for a stay on telecast of the report, as sought by Louise’s Trust that has been accused of misappropriation of public funds meant for the disabled.

Ever since the beginning of the latest round of mega-scam season in 2010 with the allegations of massive misappropriation of public funds in inflated New Delhi Commonwealth Games (CWG) bills; followed by 2G spectrum allocation scandal, Neera Radia tape; Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement; Coalgate; UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra-DLF’s Kushal Pal Singh land deals; NCP strongman Sharad Pawar family’s Lavasa link; Mallya’s flying high despite Kingfisher’s and its financiers’ owes; the money trail into BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s firms; etc., the media has been going hammer and tong to expose what it appeared to be common in most cases – a strong business-politics-bureaucracy nexus – almost on a non-stop basis.

Although, to be honest, the original credit behind most of the big-time scandal exposes should go to the statutory authorities such as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG); office of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI); some of the dutiful, diligent and disgruntled top government officials; and government financial institutions, the media has been unnecessarily and illogically at the receiving end from those political masterminds and businessmen named in official reports and exchange of notes for reporting the alleged wrong-doing and analysing the development.

Taking the media to court with libel and large compensation suits by politicians in power or big businessmen running their empires with public funds and the government threatening media houses with income-tax raids are as much a distasteful trend as erecting a shield around Vadra by the entire Congress party and the government and the defence of Gadkari by the BJP top brass. No words are strong enough to condemn such actions, which are nothing but attacks on the very foundation of Indian democracy. They deserve complete rejection by the society and stakeholders.

—(IPA Service)
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News Updated at : Thursday, November 1, 2012
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