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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1590

Media under fire in Tamil Nadu <br>

By Papri Sri Raman: Indo-Asian News Service

Chennai, Dec. 08, (IANS): The media in Tamil Nadu says it has had enough.

Sick and tired of growing attacks on what it says the journalist's basic right to function independently, the state's newspapers, magazines and even electronic media are up in arms.

And they are sparing none, certainly not the state's politicians.

Tamil Nadu's journalists have always been an angry lot. The volcano finally erupted last month when the government came down on The Hindu, undoubtedly one of the country's most prestigious media houses.

When the Tamil Nadu assembly speaker K. Kalimuthu ordered the arrest of five of its journalists, allegedly for breaching legislative privileges, all hell broke loose.

Suddenly, the Tamil Nadu scribes realised they had garnered support not only in the country but even abroad.

The Supreme Court's intervention forced the speaker to back off, but now the journalists realise the time has arrived to speak up - loudly and firmly.

"It is time to review where the concept of freedom of the press stands, as also freedom of speech and expression," says The Hindu editor-in-chief N. Ram, one of those against whom the arrest warrants were issued.

"Judicial interpretation has put freedom of speech and expression on a high pedestal though it has not been explained anywhere in the constitution," he has declared.

The All-India Lawyers' Union has also criticised the "tyranny of privileges claimed by the legislature".

One of its members, R. Vaigai, noted a committee set up to review the constitution had also doubted the procedure of "peoples' representatives trying to shield themselves behind privileges".

Apparently unfazed, the government of Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha has filed a fresh batch of 23 defamation cases against newspapers and the media.

Among the fresh targets are the well-known satirical Tamil magazine Tughlaq, edited by the illustrious Cho Ramaswamy, apart from The Hindu and Murasoli, the mouthpiece of the opposition DMK party.

This takes the total number of defamation cases filed by the government against the media to 82.

During Jayalalitha's previous stint of 1992-96, 140 defamation cases were slapped against journalists.

National magazines like India Today have also not been spared. Not to escape the government wrath is Kalki, a respected Tamil journal, and Nakkeeran, a widely circulated Tamil political magazine.

The government accuses the journals and newspapers of "criticising and casting aspersions" on the administration and "besmirching" Jayalalitha's reputation.

Tughlaq's Ramaswamy, publisher C. Rangachari and cartoonist Ramu have been summoned by a court to explain their position on cartoons the magazine published on April 14 and 30.

Kalki and Murasoli have been hauled up for articles and cartoons.

But journalists say it is not just enough to blame the ruling AIADMK party.

Cho recalls that he faced three defamation cases when the DMK was in power -- and was acquitted in all of them.

Calling for corrective action, the journalist-cum-politician told IANS: "I think there should be codification of (legislators') privileges. This is a must.

"Immunity for members of the legislative assembly should only extend to the privilege of not being held legally answerable for the statements they make on the floor of the house.

"Beyond this, they should have no other privilege and should be subject to same laws like everyone else."

Another man who has taken on the establishment -- and won -- is S. Balasubramanian, editor of the Ananda Vikatan group.

In 1987, Ananda Vikatan attracted the wrath of AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran for publishing a cartoon in which one of the characters said: "The person who looks like a pickpocket is the MLA and the person who looks like a masked dacoit is the minister".

Balasubramanian refused to apologise and on April 4, 1987, the state assembly sentenced him to three month's rigorous imprisonment.

He was let out of jail after two days following a media outcry.

Balasubramanian challenged the speaker's action and a full bench of the Madras High Court held the sentence was wrong and awarded him Rs.1,000 in compensation.

The money Balasubramanian got has been framed and displayed in his office.

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