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Is the Odisha government trying to muzzle the media?

Systematic targeting and muzzling of media by state, which is not to be conflated with a political party, does not augur very well in a democracy. May better sense prevail soon.

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The bitter spat and ugly fallout of longtime BJD MP Baijayant Panda with his party became a public spectacle earlier this year. Simmering tensions between Baijayant and Naveen Patnaik were no secret earlier as well. Naveen is not known to be very benevolent to his detractors. However, recent events suggest that the fallout now has ramifications in how the government formulates its public policy vis-a-vis the press, which is rather tragic and dangerous.

Odisha’s largest news media channel OTV is owned by Baijayant Panda’s family. On 20th November, OTV ran a story showing how honourable speaker Pradip Amat was acting on behest of Assembly secretary Amiya Kumar Sarangi after the latter whispered in his ear to adjourn the house. Immediately after this, the speaker is seen to be adjourning the house.

To translate it for our non-Odia readers, the assembly secretary is first seen talking to parliamentary affairs minister Shri Bikram Keshari Arukh. Later, he is whispering “3 ghatika” or 3’O clock into honourable speaker’s ear, immediately after which the speaker announces, “The house is adjourned till afternoon 3’O clock today

Right after the story was reported, a privilege motion was moved against OTV by Congress MLA Taraprasad Bahinipati which was accepted by the speaker. It is interesting to note here that, Prameya News 7, 2nd in the BARC rating among Odia news channels, ran the same story but no such notice was issued against them. This privilege notice was only for OTV.

A quick note on privilege motion. Members of the house enjoy certain privileges to discharge their duty effectively. When any of these rights or immunities are disregarded, it amounts to a breach of privilege and a notice is moved in form of a motion.

However, in the last 2 occasions in the case of Abhijit Iyer and OTV, the state assembly seems to move such motion, which is to be used rather judiciously, at its whims. Abhijit passed in some very unsavoury remarks against the Chief Minister and the legislators as well. Sure, it may amount defamation if one may think so and it remains for the courts to decide, it surely doesn’t breach the privilege of members, neither it restricts them to effectively discharge their duties.

OTV’s broadcast doesn’t even amount to any kind of defamatory statement or anything which is unsavoury leave apart breach of member’s privilege. Also, what is common to both instances are, in the case of Abhijit and OTV, the motion is moved by a member of the opposition, Congress party to be specific. While this time it’s Tara Bahinipati, in case of Abhijit, it was LOP Narasingha Mishra.

Odisha is hosting the ongoing Hockey world cup, 2018. The capital is all decked up for this added to the frenzied media and enthusiastic and Hockey loving denizens. There is a huge facelift given to public spaces and facade of Bhubaneswar and state government has done a tremendous job readying the city in time to host the grand event.

With respect to this, the secretary of Department of Sports and Youth Services (DSY), Mr Vishal Dev called a few press members to brief them about how the preparations for the world cup is going on. DSY maintains that it was not a press briefing but the secretary only called a selected few press members while OTV “barged in”. Whatever the case may be, Vishal Dev refused to speak while OTV boom was on his table. He asked the OTV reporter to get out of his room as it’s not a “public park” that anyone can come visiting without an invitation. He started the briefing only after OTV representative left the scene. Vishal Dev’s grouse was that OTV broadcasted some adverse report regarding online ticket sales and insinuated that government officers didn’t handle it properly.

Government targeting OTV didn’t end there. Just before the opening ceremony, the press accreditation of OTV’s sports bureau chief was cancelled. When cornered, the government clarified that it’s Hockey India’s prerogative on which press to be allowed and who is not. The state government has no role to play. It’s amusing that Hockey India will cancel press accreditation of the sports bureau chief of the leading Odia Channel, which has more than double the viewership than its nearest competitor while hosting the most important event of Hockey in the state of Odisha.

BARC rating for Odia news media channels

This animosity with OTV isn’t new. Early in March this year, BJD boycotted OTV and stopped sending it’s representative or spokespersons to OTV alleging that it has lost its neutrality. This is fair though.

Boycotting a channel or a commercial establishment is a democratic right and any party or individual is well within his own entitlement to boycott anything they deem fit. However, systematic targeting and muzzling of media by state, which is not to be conflated with a political party, does not augur very well in a democracy. May better sense prevail soon.

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