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G Square case: How no one comes out looking good

In the G Square-Vikatan-Kevin case, blogger Savukku Shankar (bottom right) has been named along with blogger Maridhass (top right) as alleged extortionists in the FIR.

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The G Square-Vikatan-Kevin case is much like the idiyappam that Tamils love. The case flashed in the media when Kevin, described by the police as being associated with the Vikatan Group, was arrested some six hours of the filing of an FIR for trying to extort money from property developer G Square. But the case soon branched into several winding threads leading in different directions with different implications.

What immediately popped up was the name G Square Realtors. The buzz in Tamil Nadu realty sector for more than six months has been G Square. Its high profile activities, advertisements, coverage in the media, as well as visible signs of land acquisition and construction have set the grapevine abuzz regarding who was behind it and its impressive growth.

Journalists and many others have been receiving WhatsApp forwards that talked about how G Square had got suspiciously quick clearances from various government agencies. A Junior Vikatan article in January alleged that  G Square that had done nearly a thousand crore business in a few months was using the name of V Sabareesan, chief minister M K Stalin’s son-in-law, to get these clearances. The company was representing to officials and competitors that Sabareesan backed the company, the article said. The article did not talk about a direct or formal link between Sabareesan and G Square.

Blogger Savukku Shankar, who has been named along with blogger Maridhass, have also been vocal about G Square. They have been named as alleged extortionists in the FIR. Savukku Shankar has now sought to turn this case into one with multiple elements and strands through a scoop interview of Kevin’s lawyer Saranathan.

Kevin was an associate of Sadiq Batcha who apparently committed suicide ahead of a CBI investigation in the 2G scam money trail. Kevin had been helping Batcha’s family and that had entangled him in other cases, the lawyer said. The Vikatan case was only one among many false cases filed against him, Saranathan alleged.

The Vikatan-Kevin-G Square affair has already brought to the fore the issue of professionalism in police and media

While more revelations are likely to come as the investigation proceeds and the truth, or at least a portion of the truth, may be established, the Vikatan-Kevin-G Square affair has already brought to the fore the issue of professionalism in police and media. Both these institutions’ stated goal is serving society and that would require a high degree of professionalism.

The accused was arrested within a few hours after the FIR was made – an extremely rare event certainly. It indicated that people with power could make the police act faster.

The FIR alleges a conspiracy between Kevin, Vikatan editor, reporter, two Vikatan Group directors – B Srinivasan and his wife, Radhika Srinivasan —  as well as Savukku Shankar and Maridhass to extort money. It would seem ridiculous that the Dravidianist Shankar and Sanghi Maridhass should work together. But, technically such a conspiracy is possible between multiple people even if all of them don’t know each other or acted together.

Purushotham Kumar, chief compliance officer of G Square based on whose complaint the police filed an FIR

The editor of Junior Vikatan, reporter as well as Savukku Shankar and Maridhass are specific persons named in the “details of the known persons” column of the FIR. While the FIR in this column names Shankar and Maridhass, it doesn’t name the editor and reporter though these could have been easily obtained after preliminary inquiries. Registering an FIR requires some due diligence on the part of the police but that seems missing in this instance.

Then as item 3 in that column, all those concerned with the affairs of Vikatan are named but not Srinivasan and his wife. The inference can be that while those named could potentially obtain anticipatory bail against arrest, Srinivasan and his wife couldn’t. But there was always a possibility that they could be arrested. This would have put much pressure and the fear of arrest .in them since there was no recourse to anticipatory bail.

With journalists jumping in to defend Vikatan and charging that this was a case of threat to freedom of speech, the government backtracked. The police then said while Kevin had financial transactions with Junior Vikatan staff, there was no evidence of collaboration with Junior Vikatan directors. Therefore they were dropping the references from the FIR. Since the FIR had entered the legal process with Kevin being arrested and remanded, any deletion should have been submitted to the court with an explanation. Meanwhile, Savukku Shankar has justifiably asked how the FIR talks about an associate of Kelvin coming to G Square office and using threatening language but the police haven’t given any indication they investigated that person.

A press release apparently from the Mylapore police station that registered the case summed up the FIR and ended by saying that those who did such acts would be severely dealt with. The police were probably referring to extortion but the implication could easily have been that negative media coverage of powerful people and entities would invite police action.

Then the government announced the transfer of a high ranking police official apparently holding him responsible for the botched FIR. It is not known if he was indeed responsible for the slips but as a senior officer he has been held accountable.

The cases piling against Kevin raises the possibility of the Goondas Act being used on him. Such an order can be issued by the collector or the police commissioner of Chennai although it would be subject to review including by a judicial officer. The order would mean Kevin could face a jail term of one year without trial or conviction.

If the FIR had indeed been handled professionally and the police had shown that they had acted in a fair manner after ascertaining basic facts, their mandate of serving society would have been fulfilled. But they did not.

G Square is certainly a newsmaker and deserving of critical journalistic inquiry. But reportage has to be backed by evidence, not innuendo. The real estate sector is at one end of the spectrum of the way business functions in our society. While bureaucratic red tape and corruption mars practically every significant legitimate business activity, real estate inevitably draws in ill-earned cash in greater numbers.

Not too long ago, Jayalalithaa had constituted special courts to hear land grab allegedly by DMK men during the DMK regime between 2006 and 2011. It’s not known what came of the many cases filed against them and if they were tried. Real estate, power cuts and the cloud of 2G were her campaign themes in 2011.

The DMK regime has not come out looking good in the Vikatan-Kevin-Police saga. The Stalin government has earned much goodwill despite questions over fulfilling its electoral promises. Personally, Stalin is liked by many and is seen as earnest and well meaning. Recent straw polls on approval ratings are favourable. Voters would like him to continue the good work but will lose faith if he is seen as nepotistic.

While Junior Vikatan editor Kalaiselvan said in an interview to The News Minute Tamil that they did indeed try to get a response from G Square regarding the allegations in their story, it would have been proper to get a response from Sabareesan too since he was being named. Was he declaiming any links with G Square? Kalaiselvan did not respond to questions regarding any formal or informal association that Vikatan has or does not have with Kevin – at the management, business or editorial level – as has been claimed by the police. He also did not respond to a query about whether they had approached Sabareesan for his response to the story.

The Stalin government has earned much goodwill despite questions over fulfilling its electoral promises. Voters would like him to continue the good work but will lose faith if he is seen as nepotistic.

It is not our case that Vikatan is guilty of anything. But this case does raise the issue of generic professional deficiencies in the media.

While journalists close ranks and raise fears of freedom of press being given a chilling effect by governments or police when a media organization faces allegations, individual reporters are often thrown under the bus. Moreover, the journalism process itself needs to be questioned in the wake of the implications of the Kevin case.

News media is a business that thrives on advertisements, while the nature of journalism is anti-advertisement. Journalism has to be critical and sift through whatever is offered to flesh out the truth. If journalism were to be sustained by advertising, it opens the profession to all kinds of pressures.

Real estate and jewellery are, for instance, some of the biggest advertisers in print media and this inevitably tells on the stories that newspapers do, especially when it comes to these sectors. In Tamil Nadu, hospitals are big advertisers. So are governments. These two sectors have their own power that they exercise over media.

At an individual level, journalists are often so poorly paid that they double up as advertisement agents, especially in the districts. Inevitably, cajoling, even threatening, enters the equation between the reporter and the subject he or she is reporting. Extortion is not unheard of in Tamil Nadu journalism. Press conferences often end with an envelope stuffed with cash for individual reporters. Post-pandemic, it may be Google Pay.

In some cases, business or political interests fund a media organization, which will inevitably tie the operation down to some political/business line or the other. Here the slant is glaring and obvious.

News, in and of itself, is not paid for by the news consumer. The consumer expects news to be free. Salaries of media persons, business health of the organization, proprietor income and profits don’t come from news consumers who offer themselves only as targets of advertising. Therefore the news media has to depend on other sources that don’t serve the cause of truth and objectivity.

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