The tussle between the Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y S Rajasekhar Reddy and media baron Ramoji Rao has been in the news for a while. The Eenadu group which owns a very successful Telugu newspaper celebrated for its innovative pullouts and local editions, 12 television channels, film production company and a film city, also runs a chit fund and financing company. It is also known for its anti-Congress stance.

The crux of the antipathy is the editorial stance on the CM by the newspaper and the chief minister's so called attempts to arm-twist Rao by probing his other business interests, the Margadarsi financiers. By a Government Order (GO) in December 2006, a committee headed by N Rangachary had been asked to ascertain "whether M/s. Margadarsi Financiers, carrying on business in Hyderabad and who have raised huge moneys from the members of the public by way of deposits are acting in any manner prejudicial to the interests of the depositors and whether they are likely to return the deposits collected from the public." This order was challenged by the company and the A.P. High Court had refused to stay the proceedings initiated by the A.P. government. The government proceeded to 'seize' documents from the Margadarsi office recently and the Rangchary committee reported that depositors could expect about 49 paisa only for their rupee. All this was duly covered in the media. Ramoji Rao also issued a strongly worded rebuttal to the Rangachari committee report.

A related development was the filing of the Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court by Ramoji Rao with two senior journalists N Ram and Kuldip Nayyar who impleaded themselves in the petition. A threat to Freedom of the Press was invoked in the context of various actions by the state government in probing the activities of the chit fund company. The affidavit filed before the Supreme Court goes on to suggest: "The freedom of press and the right to free speech enshrined in the Constitution are in grave danger and…are part of the attempts of the State Government to silence Eenadu."

The editors guild had earlier issued a warning to the A.P. government that an attempt to search the offices of the media baron was tantamount to an attack on the press. These developments, apart from motivations and agenda on either side have once again framed press freedom. The Hindu in an editorial (on 23 December, 2006) that was faithfully carried by the Eenadu the next day described the situation in A.P. as reflecting a "Dangerous Intolerance" towards press criticism and invoked Nehruvian principles of press freedom.

Perhaps press freedom advocates find it difficult to understand the relationship between the business aspects of a media company, its political affiliation and the content of the media that is apparently intended to serve the public interest. But the truism that a free press has been defended in the past to mask among other aspects, the attacks on related business enterprises of a media company, has been reinforced in the current developments in Andhra Pradesh.

Eenadu's own well-known slant

Since Eenadu's launch in 1974 its editorial stance towards the Congress has not been friendly. Prior to its support to TDP (formed in 1982) the newspaper was aligned with the communists largely dominated by the Kamma community in coastal Andhra. The internal emergency declared during the Congress regime was another anti-Congress rallying point for Ramoji Rao. The paper's campaign for prohibition in the State opposed the Congress clique that then controlled the liquor business. And although the campaign did result in a prohibition policy, when this was subsequently lifted by the TDP, there was no similar critical reaction from the newspaper. The importance given to Telugu Desam and its leader in Eenadu is not lost on anyone.

Academicians who monitor the Telugu daily press do agree that the editorial stance of the Eenadu group is anti-Congress. Dr Satyaprakash, a communications faculty in the Hyderabad Central University sums up the Eenadu-Congress issue as follows: "Its critical reporting about the Congress since it unseated the TDP in the last election is more than evident and can be perceived by the lay reader as well. Since the Congress MP, Undavall Arun Kumar from Rajamundhry raised the issue of Margadarsi financiers, allegations and counter allegations have continued about the newspaper targeting the Congress and the Chief Minister using his state power to muzzle the paper by trying to destabilise the financial institutions of Ramoji Rao. Since the issue has been raised, Eenadu continues to feature stories and treats stories related to Margadarsi in a predictable manner. Other Telugu dailies do not miss to introduce the freedom of the press angle in their stories as they have a stake in the issue as well."

Coverage of the current controversy

The coverage of the raids conducted on the premises of the chit fund company by the state government was predictable. With the Deccan Chronicle carrying a front page story on the committee report pertaining to the chit fund company and the same story being tucked to an inside page by The Hindu, the alignment was evident. With N Ram, editor in chief of The Hindu impleading in the special leave petition filed in the Supreme Court by Ramoji Rao, the business association was transparent. It may be pointed out that The Hindu and Eenadu have a marketing alliance to leverage their combined readership base. "To enable our large circle of advertisers and clients to achieve their communication objectives for this market with immediate ease and efficiency, two leading media vehicles - The Hindu and Eenadu have come together to offer AP on a platter." This combined offer began in 2001.

The coverage in The Hindu was not necessarily in conformity with its claim of applying pure editorial values. The Rangachari report was relegated to the inside pages, as noted earlier, and the front page anchored a story on the furor over the searches of the chit fund company. Further almost an entire page barring the ad space was devoted to the story that included the gag order against the media (the backdrop to this story was evident), Ramoji Rao's response with his photograph and Jayalalithaa's description of the raid as undemocratic. The Bharatiya Janata Party's response and Chandrababu Naidu meeting the governor were also given importance, along with defence of the ruling party that the raids, etc. were not in any way tantamount to an attack on the freedom of the press.

Additional coverage in the Deccan Chronicle focused on official action and justification in the inside pages and included references to the protests against the raids spearheaded by the Telugu Desam party in particular.

There is another aspect, in addition to political alignments. There have been headlined media stories in the past highlighting the misdeeds of other chit fund companies and financial institutions. Alarmist reactions by the depositors have also been featured. Call it media power, the alarmist perspective is missing in this case. The episode is being treated as the hyper-critical attitude of the media baron towards the present state government. According to Ramoji Rao's SLP, the government's response of muzzling the media was intended at "financially destabilising the media enterprise from running the daily Eenadu and 12 television channels".

The view of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court while refusing to stay the inquiry taken up by the state government into alleged irregularities of the Margadarsi group made a few observations that are valid in the context of media and editors' reaction to the raids. When Ramoji's counsel attributed malafide intentions to the chief minister, chief justice K G Balakrishnan commented according to the Deccan Chronicle, "Financial institutions are always in trouble. Why can't the government intervene?" At another point during the hearing, Justice Ravindran observed: "When the Chief Minister commits a mistake you pointed it out. Similarly, when you did wrong, the State government has acted. Your client (Mr. Ramoji Rao) is wearing two hats. One as a newspaper owner and the other as a proprietor of chit fund company." The intervener applications filed by N Ram and Kuldip Nayyar evoked a different reaction from the apex court. "It has nothing to do with the freedom of press. It is only a financial business."

The relationship between Freedom of the Press and the capitalist order is problematic especially in the context of the economics of media industry where both cross-media and vertical integration practices prevail. In cases where the interests of the media baron could ostensibly conflict with that of the public and their resources how relevant is the threat to freedom of the press argument? This is an important question as the public's right to know is enshrined in the RTI Act and media claims to be a champion of probing all matters that concern the public. By extension it cannot shirk from its primary role merely because the story refers to the same group.

Seen in the light of the raids on the chit fund company, the media's claim to transcend conflict of interest dynamics and posit a public interest dimension is once again under scrutiny. But when political and business interests converge to operate media enterprises, the pretence of public interest is exposed. The fragility of public discourse on matters that concern them is also evident. The poor public's right to know is always added as a defence to fight what apparently are the right or wrong practices of a company that is owned by a media baron.

The issue itself may die on a symbiotic note. The attitude of the media in this case although polarised depending on whose side you want to be is reflective of the enormous business stakes involved, the ethical dimension of corporate affairs reporting, including the financial and other interests of the media owners. The Supreme Court at least by drawing the sharp line between financial interests and press freedom has been explicit in highlighting this issue.