A Long Look at How Republic TV and Mumbai Police Have Crossed Swords and Limits

With Mumbai police filing an FIR against the channel in the TRP case, the Editors Guild has cautioned that the investigation should not suppress media rights.

New Delhi: The Television Rating Points (TRP) rigging case registered by the Mumbai police, in which nine people have been arrested so far and several journalists of Republic TV, including its editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, have been questioned, has raised several questions about both media ethics.

But it is also proving to be yet another example of a government hitting out at a media house which it finds is not toeing the line.

With the two sides engaged in an all out war, both the Supreme Court and the Bombay high court (as also the Editors Guild of India) have urged the Mumbai police and the news channel to conduct themselves properly.

Recently on October 23, four journalists of the Republic media group – senior associate editor Shawan Sen, executive editor Niranjan Narayanaswami, deputy news editor Shivani Gupta and anchor Sagarika Mitra – were booked for defaming the Mumbai Police and “inciting disaffection” among police personnel against Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh.

Narayanaswami and Sen were subsequently questioned at the N.M. Joshi police station the following day. This apart, Arnab Goswami has been questioned in connection with the case for over 17 hours.

Also read: Backstory: All Media Trials Have a Secret Ingredient

Police name two Republic officials in TRP case

The Mumbai police Crime Branch on that day told the Metropolitan Magistrate Court that owners and other officials affiliated with Republic Media Network, News Nation and Mahamovie have been named as accused in the TRP scam and were wanted for their role in the case.

The police did not disclose the names of the accused but said their involvement was established during the interrogation of those arrested earlier.

Earlier in October, Mumbai police commissioner Singh had claimed discovery of a racket of ramping up viewership of channels and alleged that the owners of Republic TV, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema were involved in it. Though the police arrested the owners of the last two channels, it did not proceed in a similar manner against Republic TV. Goswami claimed that there was never a case against his channel and that the police were indulging in a “desperate witch hunt” at the instance of their political masters, in particular, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.

Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray. Photo: OfficeofUT/Twitter

Multiple notices to Republic in Sushant Singh, Palghar lynching, Bandra cases

Incidentally, over the past few months, several notices have been issued to Republic TV and Goswami by the police as also the Maharashtra Assembly in various matters.

With the Maharashtra government targeting the channel over its coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case as also the Palghar lynching case and Bandra migrants incident, the channel has also taken to attacking Singh personally for following the agenda of the Shiv Sena-led alliance government. Incidentally, in late June, the Bombay high court had stayed the proceedings in connection with two FIRs filed against Goswami in these cases.

Also read: Is Adityanath Government in UP Going Out of Its Way to Bat for Republic TV on TRP Case?

Thereafter, the Maharashtra government filed an appeal against the stay given by the high court. When this matter came up before a three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, and Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and L. Nageswara Rao on October 26, the CJI told senior advocate Harish Salve who was appearing for Goswami:

“Keeping your client aside, while we agree with freedom of press, we don’t appreciate the proposition that as a person from the media your client should not be asked any question.”

He added, “Our most important concern as a court of law is peace and harmony in the society” and that, “nobody is immune to being questioned”. Stating that press freedom was crucial, the CJI said, “There has to be responsibility in reporting” and that “there are some areas one has to tread with caution”.

On the high court’s decision, the apex court observed that “some people are targeted” by the powers that be “with higher intensity” and “need a higher degree of protection”. It also noted that “there is a culture these days that some people need a higher degree of protection”. 

‘Investigation should not be used to suppress media rights’

Meanwhile, taking cognisance of the developments in the TRP case, which Republic TV has portrayed as an attack on the media, the Editors Guild of India also issued a statement in which it said investigation into the multiple FIRs filed by the Mumbai Police in the alleged TRP manipulation case must not become a tool to suppress media rights.

“We do not wish to influence the probe by the authorities, even if we recognise it has the potential to bring in much needed transparency on the manipulation of popularity, and creation of ‘proceeds of crime’ – as claimed by the police; but the victimisation of the journalists should immediately stop. The use of arbitrary state power is not and has never been in the interests of working journalists,” the Guild said. 

‘Right to free speech is not licence to promote hate speech’

Its statement added that “this standoff between the Mumbai Police and the TV channel is unprecedented and threatens the tenuous but important need to maintain balance between media freedom and the imperative for it to reside within the rule of law. Right to free speech does not mean a licence to promote hate speech.”

The Guild also demanded that Republic TV “behaves responsibly” and urged it to “not compromise the safety of its journalists as well as hurt the collective credibility of media”. It pulled up the channel for alleged manipulation of TRP as well as also its “high-strung conduct” in the coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput death case.

Also read: ‘Ignorance of Law No Excuse’: Bombay HC Tells Republic TV in SSR Media Trials Case

At the same time, the Guild also issued a word of caution to the Mumbai police, urging it to “ensure that its investigation does not hurt the channel’s journalists and makes any arrests. And that the investigation does not become a tool to suppress media rights.”

TRP case was detected in early October

It was in early October that the fake TRP racket was uncovered when the Broadcast Audience Research Council in a complaint filed through Hansa Research Group, that installed audience measurements meters on its behalf, accused some television channels of rigging their TRPs by bribing some households to watch it.

Announcing the detection of the racket, Mumbai Police Commissioner Singh had claimed that three channels used to ask some households to keep some channels on even if they were not at home and bribe some people to run only their channels.

The Commissioner said a “false narrative” was being created and spread through these ratings around the investigation by the Mumbai police into the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

A screengrab of Republic TV’s coverage of the investigation into Rhea Chakraborty’s involvement in the Sushant Singh Rajput case.

How channels wanted to hijack the ratings

On how the matter came to light, the police said BARC used BAR-o-Meters for tracking TRPs. These meters were installed in around 45,000 households that were classified into 12 categories. The members of these houses were given separate viewer IDs, which they were required to use while watching television as it enabled BARC to monitor the duration for which various channels were being watched.

While following the complaint, the Mumbai police arrested the owners of Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema, but did not proceed in a similar manner against Republic TV.

Also read: In Funding Hatred, India’s Corporates Have Compromised With Evil

Republic officials were initially only questioned

The Mumbai police first summoned the Chief Financial Officer of the channel Shiva Subramaniam Sundaram on October 10 but he sought a reschedule citing “personal commitments”. Then on October 11, the Chief Executive Officer of the channel Vikas Khanchandani appeared before the Mumbai police for questioning.

Subsequently, on October 14, its Executive Editor Niranjan Narayanaswamy and Senior Executive Editor Abhishek Kapoor recorded their statements before the crime branch of Mumbai Police.

In the meantime, Republic TV claimed that the summons to its top editors were nothing but “desperate witch hunt” and it accused the police of acting against the channel at the behest of its political masters.

SC refused to hear Republic plea, said ‘have faith in our high courts’

The channel, through Sundaram, also filed a petition in the Supreme Court against Mumbai police.

On October 15, when the matter came up before a three-judge bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, it refused to hear the appeal and told the channel to approach the Bombay high court. “Your office is at Worli. Worli to Flora Fountain (where Bombay high court is situated) is closer. We should have faith in our high courts,” Justice Chandrachud said.

Also read: ‘Must Have Faith in HC’: SC Asks Republic TV to Approach Bombay HC in TRP Scam Case

As for the Mumbai police, the Judge said: “We are concerned with the police commissioners giving interviews to press these days.”

Assembly notice to Goswami for sharing proceeding details with SC

Since in its petition before the Supreme Court, the channel had also submitted a copy of the Maharashtra assembly proceedings, the assembly issued a breach of privilege notice to the channel.

The Assembly Secretariat had on September 16 sought a clarification from Goswami over a breach of privilege motion against him during the two-day monsoon session of the legislature. This motion was tabled by Shiv Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik and it took offence at the way Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and other ministers were referred to by Goswami during his coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput case.

The copy of the proceedings of the House were sent to Goswami with instructions that they could not be shared but while moving the Supreme Court against this notice, he had also submitted these.

Keeping up the pressure on the channel, the Mumbai police also issued another notice to Goswami for allegedly making communally-provocative remarks during his coverage of the Palghar lynching case and Bandra migrants incident. Issued by Assistant Commissioner of Police (Worli division) under Section 108 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Code, the notice asked Goswami to show reasons for not directing him to furnish a bond of Rs 10 lakh for the duration of one year with one guarantor “who is well-known in society and who can control his behaviour”.

Arnab Goswami on Republic TV. Photo: PTI

It claimed that during his “Puchhta Hain Bharat” show on Republic Bharat, Goswami asked if it was a crime to be Hindu and wear saffron clothes and whether people would have remained silent had the victims not been Hindus. The notice said these remarks could create communal disharmony and hatred between Hindus and Muslims.

Also read: Sushant Singh Rajput’s Friend Sends Notice to Republic TV, Seeks Rs 200 Crore Damages

Earlier, the Mumbai police had also registered an FIR against Goswami under Section 153A & 153B of the Indian Penal Code for communalising the Palghar and Bandra incidents but the Bombay high court had stayed the investigation saying no offences could be made out.

Petition in Bombay HC urges quashing of FIR

On October 17, the Republic TV media group moved the Bombay high court urging it to quash the FIR registered in the Television Rating Points (TRP) manipulation case by the Mumbai Police.

The petition filed by ARG Outlier Media Private Limited and Goswami termed the FIR registered on October 6 at Kandivali police station to be “misconceived, politically motivated and frivolous”. In this, the company and Goswami had been charged under Sections 409 (criminal breach of trust by public servant, or by banker, merchant or agent), 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 120B (punishment of criminal conspiracy), and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

The petitioners also urged that the case be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation and demanded a stay on the investigation and restraining the police from taking any coercive steps.

High court too asks the channel to ‘behave properly’

On October 19, the Bombay high court told the Mumbai Police to issue summons to Goswami if it sought to add his name to the FIR in the TRP case. A Division Bench of Justices S.S. Shinde and M.S. Karnik said: “In case the Investigating Officer proposes to name Mr. Goswami as accused in the case, then, as done with the eight persons, summons shall be issued to him and he shall then cooperate with the police.”

Appearing for Goswami senior advocate Harish Salve sought interim protection from arrest. However, the court said it could not pass such an order as Goswami had not been named as an accused. Senior advocate Kapil Sibal appeared for the Maharashtra government and Mumbai Police.

Also read: TRP Manipulation and TV Channels Propagating Hate Are Two Different Problems

The high court also raised questions around the Police Commissioner holding press conferences in such a matter. “We are not talking about just this matter but many sensitive cases…we find police giving information to the media even when investigation is in progress. Police are not supposed to reveal incriminating information pertaining to the case.”

When Sibal accused the channel of vilifying the police, Justice Shinde also noted, “Media is considered as the fourth pillar of democracy and, hence, they too need to behave responsibly.”

With the Mumbai police now claiming that one Abhishek Kalawade and his accomplices had allegedly accepted money from Republic TV, News Nation and Mahamovie channels and that they “further distributed the money to the people who are amongst the 1,800 panel homes, so that they watch their channels for maximum time which will help them in increasing their TRP ratings,” the case has moved ahead.

It remains to be seen if more arrests would be made in the coming days.