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Fake TRP Scam: A Look at the Developments So Far

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The TRP scam, which was uncovered in October 2020 after three television news channels were accused of rigging television rating points (TRP) to increase viewership, saw a new development on Sunday after Pakistan’s foreign ministry alleged India’s ruling party BJP and its ideological parent organisation, RSS, of staging “false flag” operations in the Pulwama attack of February 2019.

The allegations by Pakistan were a result of the exchange of texts between Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Republic TV and Partho Dasgupta, the former CEO of Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), that confirmed that Goswami shared information with Dasgupta about the Balakot air strike that was conducted by India on February 2019 on a terrorist camp in Balakot in Pakistan. The air strike was in retaliation to 2019 Pulwama attack in Kashmir, in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed after a vehicle-borne suicide bomber attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway.

What started out as a probe into tampering with viewership records soon snowballed into a breach of national security interests.

On Sunday, Republic TV released a statement responding to Pakistan’s allegations, alleging that Pakistan’s statement was “proof of the deep conspiracy of anti-India and anti-national forces” against the news channel and its editor-in-chief.

After the series of chats was revealed by the Mumbai Police, the National Security Agency summoned Goswami in relation with the texts, that suggested that he was tipped off by a government insider, which is a breach of national security interests.

Meanwhile, Dasgupta, who is currently in judicial custody following his arrest in December 2020, was admitted to the ICU at JJ Hospital in Mumbai on January 16 after he fell ill on January 15. He is currently on oxygen support.

The series of chats, which constitute a major part of the 3,600-page chargesheet filed by the Mumbai Police, is proof of the exchange of information between Dasgupta and Goswami, who is the face of Republic TV. While Dasgupta helped Goswami with strategies to boost the TRP ratings, chats disclosed by veteran lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan show that Goswami kept Dasgupta updated about the Centre’s steps regarding issues of national interests.

What is TRP? How does it work?

TRPs determine the amount of viewership a particular channel gets and consequently, the amount of investment the channel receives in the form of advertisements. BARC, which releases data on TRPs on a weekly basis, has installed barometers (also known as people’s meter) to check and evaluate the viewership at some sample houses.

Where did it all start?

On October 8, 2020, the Mumbai Police claimed to bust a ‘TRP scam’, accusing three news channels of internally rigging the viewership rating mechanism. Mumbai Police chief Param Bir Singh accused television channels Republic TV, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema of manipulating TRPs during a press conference.

The discovery was made after the research company Hansa Research Group, which is responsible for installing and evaluating these barometers, filed a complaint against some of its employees, alleging them of compromising data. The employees were accused of sharing data with certain channels that paid select households to watch their channels to boost their ratings.

Consequently, Goswami shared a statement, calling out Singh and threatened to file a defamation case against him.

Rubbishing the police’s claims, Goswami said that Singh and the Mumbai Police made “false allegations” against Republic TV, as he had put Singh in a spot during the cases of Palghar lynching and late actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide.

Spate of arrests that followed:

The police have so far arrested 15 people in relation to the TRP scam, including higher ranking officials of Republic TV.

The police arrested five employees of Hansa Research Group, including Vishal Bhandari, Vinay Tripathi, Sanjiv Rao, Ramji Verma, Dinesh Vishwakarma, and former relationship manager Umesha Mishra. All the accused have been released on bail

Police also arrested Fakt Marathi channel owner Shirish Satish Pattanshetty, and Box Cinema‘s chief Narayan Sharma in October 2020. Both of them were granted bail later that month.

However, the arrest of Republic TV’s distribution head Ghanshyam Singh made the most headlines. He was released on December 5, 2020 after it was found that he was only responding to orders from the channel’s chief operating officer Priya Mukherjee and chief executive officer Vikas Khanchandani.

Khanchandani was arrested on December 13 after Goswami’s plea, seeking a stay on the investigation, was rejected by the Bombay High Court. The channel called the arrests “illegal” and accused Mumbai Police of carrying out “witch-hunts”.

Khanchandani was granted bail on December 16, 2020 on a bail bond of Rs 50,000.

BARC India’s former Chief Operating Officer Romil Ramgarhia was arrested on December 17, 2020. Ramgarhia had resigned from BARC in July 2020. While the police had evidence of him assisting media organisations to manipulate the barometer panels, they sought his custody to investigate why he quit BARC.

Current status in court:

The Bombay High Court on January 14, 2021 ordered that the Mumbai Police cannot take any coercive action against Republic TV employees, Goswami and other employees of Republic TV’s parent company, ARG Outlier Media Private Limited, till January 29, 2021.

The bench, headed by Justices SS Shinde and Manish Pitale, were hearing Republic TV’s plea challenging the investigation and criminal proceedings being conducted by the Mumbai Police in the fake TRP scam case.

Senior advocate Harish Salve, on behalf of ARG Group, called the bribing allegations “nonsensical” and said that the matter falls outside the jurisdiction of the Mumbai Police. He suggested that the court look into the money laundering case filed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in relation with the TRP scam. The bench added that if the ED’s report did not match that of Mumbai Police’s, then the court would realise that the allegations were fake.

ARG Media has filed several pleas in the Bombay High Court to transfer the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

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