Over the weekend, it was a veritable rumour fest. And in the end, pretty much a slam dunk by the lumpen proletariat. It all began when I received a SMS saying that a Russian website had allegedly linked Mukesh Ambani to Andhra Pradesh CM YS Rajsekhar Reddy’s untimely death. Moments later, I received another SMS saying that Telugu channels TV 5 and Sakshi were running riot claiming that the Ambani brothers were allegedly responsible for YSR’s fatal chopper crash. I said, what the hell, don’t these newswallahs have anything to do, why are they running these absurd conspiracy theories?
Soon, both channels were going ballistic and images of torched outlets of Reliance and ADAG were being shown on the telly. My friend Pankaj Vohra had alerted me by now on how the Telugu channels were spawning the violence. I switched to TV5 and Sakshi myself and saw the public vent its anger, destroying property of both groups. According to the channels, the Krishna-Godavari gas was at the kernel of YSR’s death. This tirade carried on well past midnight. The next morning I saw the dailies pick up on this theme and the role of the Russian website and local TV channels was highlighted by some of them. However, there was no real clarity as to what triggered the spate of violence. A malicious rumour on a website couldn’t have done so much damage.
On Tuesday, the Indian Express did a story on the entire issue, which I would like to reproduce. It says, “Linking Larry Summers to YSR death via Mukesh Ambani... That’s what Mark Ames did on his website in a report that was picked up by Andhra TV channels; he now says it was ‘speculative’.”
Interestingly, the post on the website goes back to September 3, the day after YSR’s chopper went missing. It took over four months for this startling piece to be picked up by Andhra media. The fact that SMSes were doing the rounds only throws into stark relief the unsavoury role of vested interests, who were hell bent on playing mischief. The question that begs an answer is – was it a politician playing mind games in a simmering cauldron called Andhra or a business rival as is being speculated? Or was it a business rival, hand-in-glove with a politician? Who knows? What is important is that the role of the electronic medium has once again been shown for what it is. A vacuous, superficial media, which can do immense damage if not regulated and controlled. A rottweiler, if it is in the wrong hands.
Express has traced the author of the website report. And this is his story. A web posting linking Reliance Industries to YSR Reddy’s death that sparked off arson and violence against Reliance outlets in Andhra Pradesh on January 7 had little to do with either Reliance or Reddy. In fact, the post was written by Mark Ames, a US journalist and editor of a satirical webzine, and its headline was telling: ‘Enemy of Larry Summers’ Ex-Boss Dies In Mysterious Helicopter Crash’. The conclusion, even more so: “Oh, and by the way, don’t forget this one little fun fact: Larry Summers, the guy appointed by Obama to run America’s economy, worked for Mukesh Ambani right up until he took his White House job. We’re in good hands, folks.”
“That post, dated September 3, the day after Reddy’s chopper went missing, alleged that Reddy died after he publicly criticised Mukesh Ambani – calling him Summers’ ‘oligarch friend’ – and his mother for their ongoing family feud involving the Krishna-Godavari gas basin.
“Ah, YS, you shouldn’t have attacked their mother. Next thing you know... Reddy’s deady,” Ames said in his blog. Ames now says he was merely speculating on the “mysterious” death of the former chief minister. In response to an email sent by The Indian Express, Ames said he was “flattered by all the attention” his article on the website (exiledonline.com) had got.
In a subsequent entry on the site, he said: “This has to be the single weirdest episode in my journalism career… I caused a mass riot in India… the class war is on…” So, who is Ames? He launched a bi-weekly English newspaper in Russia in 1997 that focused on political gossip and criticism of pop culture. It was forced to shut down in 2008 because of its consistent criticism of the Russian government and its policies.
After the closure, Exiled moved online and while it has contributors from various parts of the globe, Ames has largely shifted his focus on writing against the US. Last August, Ames kicked off a series focusing on people close to Larry Summers, the director of the National Economic Council of US President Barack Obama, and this followed a detailed post on Ambani, on whose company’s board Summers served as an international director. In his post, Ames claimed Summers was paid $187,000 by Ambani for doing “nothing”.
In his email to The Indian Express, Ames said: “So, tell me what the hell is going on in that state politically that could cause a four-month old blog entry on Larry Summers’ evil friends to spark a night of wild rioting in Andhra Pradesh?” TV5, the Telugu channel that aired the report based on this post, demanded a probe into the alleged Ambani hand in Reddy’s death. “One of our crime reporters was researching on a story when he chanced upon this post. We checked the history of Exiled and found out that it was once a well-known Russian publication. So, we decided to do a report based on the suspicion raised by them,” said B Surendra Nath, Vice Chairman, Shreya Broadcasting, the company behind TV5.
Nath though, clarified that the channel did not make any allegations on its own account. “We merely quoted what the Exiled said.” The report provoked attacks on personnel and property of Reliance Industries. The company, immediately, issued a statement condemning the incident and said it would seek a criminal enquiry into the incident. It also alleged “the dirty handiwork of our business rivals in cahoots with TV5”. The police, meanwhile, arrested several people, including two TV5 editors, who were released on bail later.
So, even as TV5 is in the doghouse, nobody is bothering about the role of Sakshi TV. Yes, I know what you are curious to know. Who owns Sakshi TV? Wild shot in the dark will tell you that the owner of Sakshi TV is YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, the late YSR’s son. YSR had a running battle with Ramoji Rao of Eenadu and Jagan architected Sakshi, the newspaper and TV channel, to take on the mighty Ramoji in Andhra Pradesh. YSR and Ramoji fought a pitched battle over private equity firm Blackstone’s investment in Eenadu. Things got so bad that finally Blackstone had to retreat. The man who emerged as White Knight in that scenario was investment banker Nimesh Kampani, known as one of the three kings of Mumbai’s D Street, along with Hemendra Kothari and Uday Kotak. Soon after, Kampani was caught between a rock and a hard place, when he found himself implicated in a Nagarjuna Finance cheque bouncing case. Then with an arrest warrant against his name, Kampani had to flee India. Incidentally, Telugu superstar Nagarjuna had launched the Sakshi channel along with then Minister for Information and Broadcasting Anand Sharma early last year. Jagan owns Jagati Publications, which runs Sakshi newspaper.
When the fur was flying and both the Ambani brothers were being targeted over the weekend as the spiral of violence saw their outlets in the line of fire, in a statement, the Anil Ambani-led Reliance Group said: “A malicious and criminal disinformation campaign has been engaged into by our corporate rivals leading to substantial loss and damage to several offices and businesses of Reliance ADA Group in Andhra Pradesh on Thursday evening. We are shocked to see our corporate rivals stooping down to new levels of desperation by engaging in such imaginative and baseless rumour-mongering.” Strangely, the corporate rival couldn’t have been elder brother Mukesh Ambani, whose RIL is engaged in a bitter legal wrangle with Anil Ambani’s RNRL in the Supreme Court, where the judgement has been reserved.
For Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Retail outlets were equally in the line of fire. Mukesh Ambani-owned RIL said, “We are shocked and outraged at the false, malicious and motivated news on TV5 channel concerning the fatal mishap of YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s helicopter. We condemn, rebut and reject the allegations with the contempt it deserves. It is the dirty handiwork of our business rivals in cahoots with TV5.” Now, I wonder who the common business rival of both warring Ambani brothers is? Or was it a politico who wanted to create greater consternation to a volatile maelstrom?
Finally, I leave you with this IANS report, which is also illuminating: The Andhra Pradesh police on Sunday filed a case against a former minister for allegedly inciting violence against Reliance outlets in the state after a television channel telecast an unsubstantiated story about the “conspiracy” behind the death of the then chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy in a chopper crash.
“Police in Kurnool town filed the case against Congress leader and former minister M Mareppa, who participated in a debate on TV 5, which was the first channel to telecast the story based on a report by a Russian website Thursday night.
“Two editors of the channel were already arrested and sent to jail by a magistrate for two weeks for telecasting the story. The story led to a series of attacks on Reliance stores throughout the state, since it had alleged a role by the company in the helicopter crash that killed YSR. Cases have also been filed against two other channels, including Sakshi, owned by Rajasekhara Reddy’s son and Kadapa MP YS Jaganmohan Reddy. Police said they registered 114 cases and arrested 289 people in connection with the attacks on Reliance properties.”
What this unfortunate episode once again proves is that the tinderbox that is Andhra Pradesh today due to the T word can see facts twisted and turned. The malleability and ductility of select regional media lent itself to jumpstarting a wave of indignation against two business houses on the basis of a four-month old web post. As Mark Ames, the author of the post asks – what the hell is happening in the state that something like a webpost could be used with such devastating impact? Just who benefited by fanning these fires?
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.
The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)