Indian police have arrested the chief executive officer of a media group that owns a polarising television news channel on charges of rigging the ratings system, a major component in determining what a channel can charge advertisers.
Police arrested Vikas Khanchandani, the chief executive of ARG Outlier Media, on Sunday at his home in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, Republic TV, which is owned by ARG, announced during a broadcast. Republic TV, which broadcasts in English and Hindi, aggressively supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his nationalist policies.
Republic TV denounced the arrest. “I know he will go in and come out with his head held high,” the news channel’s co-founder, Arnab Goswami, said of Khanchandani on his firebrand nightly show.
The arrest is part of a police investigation that began in October into some TV channels in the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, over accusations that they rig the ratings system.
Khanchandani had also been questioned by police earlier.
Experts say the arrests are part of a feud between Republic TV and the local administration in Maharashtra, where the coalition of governing parties resisted efforts by Modi’s party to form an alliance in the state.
Last month, police arrested Goswami at his Mumbai home and charged him with abetting suicide in connection with the 2018 deaths of an interior designer and the designer’s mother.
Multiple senior leaders of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and ministers were quick to condemn Goswami’s arrest. The Supreme Court later intervened and granted him bail after a week’s imprisonment.
Goswami has also been charged in two other cases with inciting communal tensions and promoting hatred between religious groups. He has denied all the charges.
India has one of the world’s most vibrant and competitive media environments, with more than 850 news channels broadcasting in multiple languages. But over the years, the industry has faced a crisis of credibility. Television debates among its commentators have become increasingly strident and shrill.
Many powerful television news anchors, known to support Modi and his right-leaning administration, often indulge in rancorous and chaotic debates in which shouting, screaming and name-calling have become staples.
Republic TV recently ran exhaustive coverage of the Mumbai police and accused them of mishandling an investigation into the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, a popular actor. Stories about the actor’s death sidelined other critical issues, such as India’s stalling economy, the government’s coronavirus response and growing hostilities with China over a border dispute.
The result was a surge in ratings for some TV channels, including Republic TV.
Republic TV has consistently denied the allegations of falsely bolstering its ratings data. However, the alleged ratings fraud has led to some Indian advertisers taking never-before-seen measures.
Automobile giant Bajaj Auto and Parle Products, India’s biggest biscuit maker, recently said they were pulling advertising from news channels that endorsed toxicity and hate-mongering. The companies did not name the channels, but the move was widely cheered on Indian social media.
India’s News Broadcasters’ Federation in a statement late Sunday called the arrest “highly disturbing”.
It urged the Indian government “to immediately set up an independent and neutral national agency to investigate into any allegations of professional misconduct by journalists, executives, and owners of media companies, in order to prevent selective harassment by the State Authority and to ensure the Freedom of Press”.