Chennai: The voting had ended for the bitterly fought by-elections in Chennai's RK Nagar assembly seat on 21 December 2017. The seat had fallen vacant a year earlier when J Jayalalithaa, who had represented the constituency twice, died.
- Arasu Cable TV Corporation was initially set up in 2007
- Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa revived it in 2011
- The plan was ostensibly to provide cable TV content at affordable price
The two main contestants were the AIADMK's E Madhusudhanan and TTV Dhinakaran, the powerful nephew of Jayalalithaa's closest aide, VK Sasikala, who was running as an independent.
Cauvery TV, a local news channel, aired the results of an exit poll after voting that showed Mr Dhinakaran ahead. In less than half-an-hour, the channel disappeared from the state-run Arasu Cable TV Corporation's network.
The state-run firm controls access to almost 60 per cent of Tamil Nadu's 1.2 crore TV households.
Six months later, Cauvery is still to return.
This is not an isolated case.
Instances compiled by an association of Tamil Nadu journalists suggest multiple cases of 'blackouts' simply for reporting news critical of the government.
Among the cases cited are: in February this year, Satyam TV was blacked out for a day on Arasu Cable for reporting on the protests in Tuticorin against a plant by mining giant Vedanta.
News 18 Tamil Nadu too faced blackouts for reporting on the same story.
Puthiya Talaimurai TV found itself relegated from the 124th slot to 499th slot on the Arasu Cable for airing a debate on the Tuticorin protests.
Top officials of TV channels refused to speak on camera on this topic out of fear. Several of them, however, agreed to be quoted anonymously.
One of them spoke about how it worked.
"We were airing our exit poll results showing Dhinakaran emerging as the winner in RK Nagar. Soon after the programme started at 7 pm, we received a call from someone claiming to be from the Chief Minister's Office. He said 'How can you say Dhinakaran would win? How do you know? We don't want this. Do not air the programme'. But we went ahead. Less than half an hour later, we were off Arasu Cable network and we are not available on Arasu till date."
Another told NDTV how retribution was swift when they, from the government's perspective, crossed the line.
"When we carried a story critical of the Chief Minister, we were taken off air in his hometown Salem and adjoining districts of Erode and Coimbatore. During the Tuticorin protests too, we were pulled out and people's pressure brought us back."
A senior minister in the state government did not deny blackouts.
"These allegations are not true. I deny. It is false," D Jayakumar, Tamil Nadu's Fisheries Minister said.
But then, he went on to insist that the government action wasn't unjustified.
"The government is doing correct. If they feel the government is not doing it right they (the media) have many forums to get remedy," Mr Jayakumar said.
At the heart of the government's power in controlling the media is the Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corporation Ltd's reach.
Arasu was initially set up in 2007 by the DMK government to break the monopoly of the Sumangali Cable Network of the Sun TV group owned by the Maran brothers, a consequence of the rift between the Marans and the Karunanidhi family that controls the DMK.
Jayalalithaa revived it in 2011, ostensibly to provide cable TV content to people at an affordable price.
But media experts say Arasu became another monopoly of sorts under the AIADMK regime.
"Nowhere in India does a state own content distribution. This is against TRAI's (the telecom regulator) recommendation. Tamil Nadu has a history of suppression of freedom of expression of both print and TV media. This has reached a different level," N Ravi of the Hindu Group told NDTV.
Arasu Cable officials refused to speak on camera but claimed any problem that may have arisen was purely due to technical reasons. They claim they would soon have an auction system for allotment of slots.
Tamil Nadu's embattled media fraternity is finally coming together, planning a meeting next month to highlight the crisis. But given the climate of fear, it remains unclear how many representatives of TV channels will speak out at this event.