T.P. Chandrasekharan murder case: debate on right to report

The defence strategy of the CPM in the aftermath of the murder and the exposure of its cadres’ alleged involvement in the affairs and the scorching media coverage was to run down the media as anti-party and question their credibility and locus standi in the entire episode...The atmosphere became so vitiated and the campaign against the media so virulent that towards the end of June, when a senior CPM leader was being produced before the magistrate in Vatakara, following his arrest on charges of a conspiracy linked to the murder, a group of enraged CPM supporters assaulted the camera team of a well-known Malayalam channel, India Visioncausing injuries to some.

Is it right on the part of the media to report on the criminal investigations in a case once a first information report (FIR) has been filed before a magistrate, and how far the media ought to be restricted in such reporting done presumably in public interest which might, at the same time, prejudice the interests of the accused or those likely to be accused in a criminal case? This is an issue which will be considered by the Kerala High Court as it takes up three writ petitions alleging contempt of court against a number of prominent media organisations filed in the court in the past few weeks, following the intensive media reporting on a murder case in which a rebel CPM leader T.P. Chandrasekharan was hacked to death.

The murder took place at a remote village, Onchiyam, near Vatakara, in Kozhikode district, around 9.30 p.m. on May 4, 2012. Chandrasekharan (51), a popular political activist, was waylaid as he was going home, by a gang of hired goons who chased him in a car, struck him down from his motorcycle, and attacked him with machetes and swords repeatedly, causing his death almost instantly. A leader of the CPM until three years ago, he had left the party on political grounds, formed a rival outfit called Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), took on the CPM in the Lok Sabha and local panchayat elections and defeated their candidates with huge margins despite many threats and physical attacks on himself and his followers.

The incident shocked Kerala, and public attention was riveted on the investigation, being conducted by a special investigation team of Kerala Police led by its Additional Director-General Vinson M. Paul, an upright and highly acclaimed police officer. In the two months of investigation, the team had arrested more than 70 people including almost all the members of the alleged gang of hired goons, a large number of people accused of having helped the culprits escape from the scene of crime and gave them shelter to remain hidden from police dragnet both within and outside the State, a number of local as well as higher-level political activists of the CPM in the village and the two districts of Kozhikode and Kannur alleged to have been involved in the conspiracy and planning of the murder, besides seizing the weapons allegedly used in the crime, the vehicles used by the assailants,  the blood soaked clothes, the cell phones and other equipment used, etc., as materials in evidence.
A record: All the newspapers and television channels in the State have been covering the incident from day one, and all matters related to the case, including police investigation, court proceedings, reports on conspiracies and political muck-raking remained front page and prime time material incessantly for the past two months, a record in recent media history. Many newspapers had put special correspondents in the village, and many 24-hour news channels stationed live-feed teams to follow up the story round-the-clock in view of the intense public interest and political significance of the developments. 

The political significance of the story has never been in doubt, as from the initial days itself the two top-most leaders of the CPM, its State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, and its most popular  leader and former chief minister V S Achuthanandan had taken divergent and directly contradictory views on the murder case. They even clashed in the public, forcing the central leadership of the party to intervene and broker a piece, seldom honoured by both sides. For example, as Pinarayi Vijayan called the slain man a “renegade”, Achuthanandan described him a “bold communist”.  Asked about his party secretary’s view, Achuthanandan said the secretary’s opinion was not the final word in the party. While none of the important CPM leaders cared to pay their respects to their former party comrade as his body was laid to rest, Achuthanandan not only laid a wreath on the body in Calicut but also visited the family members of the deceased at Onchiyam and paid his homage. And he chose the day of polling in a crucial by-election at the Neyyattinkara Assembly Constituency for the high-profile visit, which is believed to have had a serious impact on the voter turnout, adding to the party’s discomfiture.

The incident divided not the party, but the civil society and media commentators were also divided and were fighting against one another in the aftermath. In the prime-time news hours, commentator after commentator brought up arguments running down the CPM as more and more of its members and sympathisers were being arrested, while another band of commentators, who defended the party, came down heavily on the mainstream media accusing them of making a determined effort to finish off the party over an isolated incident of the murder of an individual, one among the hundreds of murders that take place in the State every year.
The defence strategy of the CPM in the aftermath of the murder and the exposure of its cadres’ alleged involvement in the affairs and the scorching media coverage was to run down the media as anti-party and question their credibility and locus standi in the entire episode... Read more:

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