The monsoon of mud-slinging

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by M G Radhakrishnan

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K Sudhakaran

The southwest monsoon has come late to Kerala shores this year. But it's been raining muck, allegations, gossip, and rumours with gay abandon in the state’s political landscape for some time. KPCC Chief K Sudhakaran’s arrest on a bribery case followed the accusation by CPI(M)’s State secretary MV Govindan that the Congress leader was present on the premises where a minor girl was allegedly raped. Concurrently, cases against Opposition leader V.D. Satheesan and Ramesh Chennithala are reopened or reactivated by State Vigilance. They soon began competing for media space, overflowing until then with felonious cases involving some SFI leaders. Then suddenly, G. Sakthidharan, a former journalist with the CPI(M) organ Desabhimani, posted some sensational allegations on Facebook, apparently against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his colleagues - without naming them but too obvious to miss- which got promptly amplified by the mainstream media. He claimed that a top leader pocketed more than Rs 2 crore from two businessmen a decade ago. However, when the police registered a case to investigate his charges, Sakthidharan reportedly refused to tell them anything more.

Neither that muck-raking is new to Kerala nor that every charge is baseless. So, what's new? Allegations are followed by state police or vigilance who spring into action, albeit only in cases involving Opposition leaders. This style has been put to perfection by the BJP government at the centre in several Opposition-ruled states, including Kerala. Moreover, BJP has even set in motion a “laundry machine” under which security agencies stop their chase of Opposition leaders the moment they shift to the BJP camp. The latest example is from Maharashtra, where the NCP got split in the middle with a section crossing over to the BJP camp after many of them faced Enforcement Directorate probes. Not just the investigations against them halted, but they were gifted with ministerial berths or prominent party positions.

Interestingly, the LDF government seems to be following the BJP's footsteps in this regard. Kerala Police or the vigilance department file new cases or unearth old ones only against Opposition leaders or even inconvenient media persons. Look how the Kerala Police went against reporters of Mathrubhumi and Asianet News channels, Manorama newspaper, or Marunadan Malayali, the controversial online media organisation. One may have differences with their journalism and against which one can resort to the established laws of the land. The Kerala High Court recently observed that Marunadan Malayali has indulged in personal mud-slinging or religious hate speech without factual substantiation. As the court rightly said, the media must introspect if journalism's four Ws (Who, What, When, Where) have been replaced by four Ds (Defame, Denigrate, Damnify, Destroy).

Arnab Goswami

But we must also not forget what Justices DY Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee of the Supreme Court said in 2020 on the arrest of Republic TV channel’s Arnab Goswami by the Maharashtra Police; "Liberty survives by the vigilance of its citizens, on the cacophony of the media and in the dusty corridors of courts alive to the rule of (and not by) law. Yet, much too often, liberty is a casualty when one of these components is found wanting." Democracy functions only when the Arnab Goswamis and Shajan Skarias also are allowed to join the cacophony but face the rule of law, not rule by law.

Justice Chandrachud

Initiating conspiracy cases for reporting scandals involving ruling party workers, confiscating reporters’ phones and personal laptops, conducting midnight raids on their premises or even at the staff members' homes, etc, without required orders are straight from an authoritarian playbook. Justice Chandrachud reminded in the Romila Thapar vs. the Union of India case that a fair investigation process is a basic entitlement of every citizen facing allegations of criminal wrongdoing. "This is an integral component of the guarantee against arbitrariness under Article 14 and of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21".

Even when media cacophony is legitimate in a democracy, there is much need for introspection by the media, and it cannot shy away from its responsibilities. Most allegations today are made first on social media without having to bother to present any evidence to substantiate them. Yet, they are carried prominently by the mainstream media without any cross-checking or independent investigation, and unmindful of their jarring inconsistencies. Many who raise charges are adept at smart coinages that ensure media glare. If the latest is Kaitholapaya, it was biriyani chembu yesterday and eethapazham cartons the day before.

Swapna Suresh

But the answer to these allegations, however wild and irresponsible they may be, is not state-led repression. There are settled legal ways to deal with them. Yet, despite the grave nature of the charges, those at their receiving end hardly bother initiating any legal action. Remember the grossly defamatory comments Swapna Suresh made against top CPI-M leaders. Perhaps, they trust in the transient nature of the allegations. Even the media's attention span for each case lasts until another one breaks out. Public memory is even shorter. So why bother?

As mentioned, sensational allegations and counter-allegations involving sleaze or sex are not entirely new in Kerala. Almost every government from the first EMS ministry of 1957 has not been immune to such charges. Ministers have resigned after getting embroiled in sex and graft cases. But almost all these cases had a common fate. After rocking Kerala for even years together, most vanished into thin air after their immediate political purposes were served. Even those who resigned from their ministerial posts etc., following adverse comments from courts or inquiry commissions, were acquitted later. When lower courts convicted a few in rare cases, higher courts subsequently exonerated them for want of evidence, and the accused VIPs returned to active politics and high positions. This included even the first political leader to have been sent to jail by the Supreme Court in a graft case.

Long years in journalism would turn anyone cynical. Hence this writer thinks the current crop of charges also are fated to go the same route after serving their political duty and wasting public money and time. The only dangerous consequence would be the public losing all trust in our democratic system.

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