The similarities between the two cases, five years apart, are stunning. Just as in the case of the raids on Sambad today, the elections were just a few months away when the organised, systematic and meticulously planned attempts to go after OTV and harass all those even remotely connected with it started.
Naveen Patnaik and Soumya Patnaik
It has happened to the No.1 Odia news channel in Odisha in the past. And now, it has happened to the No. 1 Odia newspaper in the state. As the sleuths of the Economic Offences Wing (EOW), which has a remarkable record of getting into private transactions between individuals and companies, landed on Sambad Bhavan on Monday afternoon, there was an air of eerie familiarity, a sense of ‘been there, seen that’ about the whole thing.
The similarities between the two cases, five years apart, are stunning. Just as in the case of the raids on Sambad today, the elections were just a few months away when the organised, systematic and meticulously planned attempts to go after OTV and harass all those even remotely connected with it started. Just like now, the provocation for the action was a powerful dissenting voice within the ruling party then; Soumya Ranjan Patnaik now, Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda then. Just like now, the reason for the dissent – and the target of the dissenting utterances – was Mr VK Pandian, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s private secretary (who has ‘graduated’ to become the all-powerful ‘5T’ secretary in the five years since then) for virtually running the affairs of the ruling party.
Then, as now, the action started with the stoppage of all government advertisements to OTV; a ban that continues even now. And lastly – and sadly – instead of standing up as one against this brazen attempt by the government to silence a dissenting voice, large sections of the media fraternity are busy looking for skeletons in the cupboards of the victims of official ire. The motto of the ruling dispensation has not changed one bit in the five years that separate the action against the two leading media houses in the state: “Toe the line or Face the music’!
Odisha now has the unique, unenviable and dubious record as the only state in the country where the undisputed No. 1 news channel and the No. 1 newspaper don’t get any government ads which, as everyone even remotely concerned with the media industry knows, is a major source of revenue for media houses. Surprisingly, no one in the state appears to be bothered about this shameless abuse of power. Many people, some of them from the media fraternity itself, actually argue that it is the ‘discretion’ of the government who it chooses to give advertisements to! They obviously don’t know there is a policy that governs the release of government ad spend and there is simply no scope for exercise of any ‘discretion’ in it.
The government is accountable for every pie that it spends on ads and the recipients have to be decided on the basis of numbers and nothing else. But in the rotten system that the government has put in place, channels that the overwhelming majority of TV news viewers don’t watch and newspapers that are read only when they are distributed free corner the lion’s share of government ads while the channel watched by millions of viewers and the newspaper bought and read by lakhs don’t get government ads worth a penny. It is, in fact, a fit case for a public interest litigation (PIL) since it involves spending of public money (which our power-drunk rulers have come to treat as their personal property!).
When the multi-pronged action against OTV – stoppage of govt ad was just a part of it - was launched by the Naveen Patnaik government, the idea was to break the channel. Seasoned employees were sought to be lured away with offers of filthy sums of money by a channel propped up by the ruling party. False cases, including a case of alleged gang rape, were registered against senior staff, some of whom were arrested and put behind bars. Others were simply harassed with frequent, hours-long interrogation. Cases were lodged against companies owned by the Pandas. But after all that, it was the government which has had to eat humble pie as OTV continues to occupy the No. 1 slot – despite all the cases filed against the company and its staff and the refusal of government ads.
There are enough indications that a similar pattern is going to repeat itself. It is all too obvious that the action against Sambad – and its head Soumya Ranjan Patnaik – is not going to stop with the EOW raid in connection with an alleged loan scam. For all one knows, the action against him could be even more vindictive and no-holds-barred, given how intolerant the government has become to even mild, well-intentioned criticism in recent times – as the move against Mr Tapan Mohanty, owner of Z Estates and the father-in-law of Mr Patnaik’s daughter, shows. And, as in the case of OTV, the government action is unlikely to push Sambad off the No. 1 position in the foreseeable future.
The Naveen Patnaik government is not the first government that has sought to muzzle the media with all legit and illegit means. Nor will it be the first government that has failed in its mission.
[Post Script: As I was returning from a live discussion on Kanak TV on the EOW raid on Sambad on Monday evening, the mind went back to a time in the early 1990s when I actually got a pat on the back from the then Chief Minister - who happens to be the father of the present Chief minister and the man after whom the party he heads is named - for a scathing story I had done on the sorry plight of the more than 9, 000 families displaced by the Hirakud dam, some of whom had been displaced twice and thrice. The great man did not stop at that. He followed it up with an order to the collector of the then undivided district of Sambalpur for a status report on the rehabilitation of the oustees. [It is another matter that many of the families are still waiting for justice.] As I went down memory lane, I muttered to myself; “How thin-skinned - and insecure - the all-conquering son of Biju Patnaik has become!”]
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)