YSR was no shrinking violet. Not only did he give as good as he got, not stopping at jailing journalists to intimidate them, he also came up with a media platform of his own, launched by his son, Jagan Mohan. It took the battle straight into the enemy camp, with considerable glee...
Y.S. Rajashekhara Reddy’s political legacy has been analysed, including the shrewdness and sagacity with which he combined rural uplift with infrastructural overhaul in Andhra Pradesh. His extraordinary media legacy has received less attention. He had to wield power in a State with a media opposition more potent than the political opposition. Practically from the day he took office in his first term he had Eenadu and Andhra Jyoti ranged tirelessly against him. But he was no shrinking violet. Not only did he give as good as he got, not stopping at jailing journalists to intimidate them, he also came up with a media platform of his own, launched by his son Jagan Mohan. It took the battle straight into the enemy camp, with considerable glee. A media strategy then, was the third pivot of the late Chief Minister’s political success in Andhra Pradesh.
A truly commercially ambitious media platform from a political family is a rarity. Sun TV and Sakal have been the only major examples to date. Both have taken time to get where they are. Mr. Reddy, man in a hurry, had his family launch a 23-edition, all-colour newspaper, Sakshi, a year ahead of the State elections in Andhra Pradesh. A publication that, a year later, is enviably close in circulation to the leading newspaper in the State. The family company that owns it also launched a TV channel the same year. Becoming an instant media baron takes some doing. Only Anil Ambani has achieved instant scale in recent times.
Sakshi, which means witness, is fascinating, because it is many things rolled into one. It is a big Reddy-owned newspaper in a State where the Kamma community dominates both the Telugu print media and the film industry. It is a pugnacious competitor to the empire of the indomitable Ramoji Rao with a TV channel to flank it, just as Eenadu has. Though it is a platform for Y.S.R. Reddy more than one for the Congress, it has successfully exploited the space that existed for a Congress-affiliated publication in a State where all Telugu media is partisan and where the Congress party has had a 40 per cent vote share. Two other Congress MPs own Telugu newspapers in this State, but their publications fail to pack the same punch.
“Someone had to start in a very big way if he wanted to compete with Eenadu and Andhra Jyoti — it requires huge investment,” says a newspaper bureau chief in Hyderabad. “When you are backed by the ruling party, resources are not a problem,” says Independent MLC K. Nageshwar, dryly. Sakshi made its debut in March last year, launched by governor N.D. Tiwari even as its web edition was launched by former Satyam chief B. Ramalinga Raju. It was designed by Mario Garcia, used good quality newsprint, and poached all key people from its chief rivals, from van drivers to feature writers, to the general manager.
The paper benefited from State government advertising from the beginning. In Andhra Pradesh, an auditor’s certificate is all that is required to get State advertising. The flip side of this was that Sakshi’s rivals benefited too. If the government was going to give this paper advertising, it also had to give some to Eenadu, the highest circulated paper in the State, and to Andhra Jyoti as well.
Nageshwar points out that in a media climate where the definition of news has expanded beyond politics, Sakshi is an editorially ambitious newspaper, priced less than its rivals, with good feature sections and a range of news reporting to offer. In the 2009 elections Sakshi was useful in promoting Congress candidates, and building up Jagan Mohan Reddy. At other times the paper also published stories against Congress leaders who were YSR detractors. And earned itself some credibility in the process!
The other aspect of YSR’s media strategy was that he was totally unafraid of taking on the media in the State. Politicians do not usually set out to intimidate the media, either out of genuine conviction or for fear of alienating them. The late Chief Minister had neither hang up. Journalists were thrashed and jailed during his tenure. The editor of Andhra Jyoti, a paper that had been one of his tormentors, was jailed in June 2008 for an alleged offence under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
In 2007 the State government jailed Pittala Srisailam, the editor of the online TV station Musi TV, after arresting him when he was on his way to interview a Maoist leader. Early in his first tenure, in 2005, YSR had warned journalists that they could be put behind the bars if they continue to interview criminals and those extremists who are waging a war against the State from their hideouts in the jungles. Interviewing Maoist leaders was not on, he said. At the same time his government held talks with the Maoists!
In 2007 YSR was criticised for government raids against Ramoji Rao’s chit fund company, though not all in the media were convinced that it was an attack upon the freedom of the press. In 2006 the State sanctioned legal action against Eenadu when it published an article against the home minister, alleging benami land transactions without naming him directly.
The same year it issued a government order, one clause of which restricted the media from entering labour rooms and operation theatres in hospitals and taking photographs. This order was issued after a pregnant tribal woman was denied admission and delivered a baby in the front yard of the Gandhi hospital, Secunderabad. It was a story the media lived off for some time. There are other examples as well.
Will Sakshi eventually overtake Eenadu? We will have to wait and see.