Mumbai Police Arrest TV Chief as Media Dispute in India Intensifies

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The police in Mumbai on Sunday arrested the chief executive of a right-wing television news broadcaster on suspicion of manipulating ratings figures, escalating a clash that has roiled India’s voluble but increasingly partisan media scene.

The police said they had arrested Vikas Khanchandani, the chief executive of ARG Outlier Media, at his home in Mumbai, India’s financial capital. ARG owns Republic TV, a news network that broadcasts in English and Hindi and that has jumped in the ratings with its embrace of populist causes and its sympathy toward Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his nationalist Hindu policies.

The authorities, which had earlier questioned Mr. Khanchandani twice, said there was enough evidence to suggest that he had direct knowledge about manipulating the ratings figures. He has not been formally charged, but investigators said they arrested him after he refused to cooperate.

ARG could not be reached for comment, but Republic TV leapt to his defense. Arnab Goswami, co-founder of the network and a pugnacious talk show host with the broadcaster, said that the police had botched the investigation and that the arrests of Mr. Khanchandani and of others at Republic TV were retaliation for the network’s tough coverage of the Mumbai force.

“It is an illegal arrest: No papers were served,” Mr. Goswami said on a broadcast on Sunday. “I am requesting all the people across the country to raise their voice against these methods of the Mumbai police.”

The arrest of Mr. Khanchandani comes as the Indian news media slides deeper into an increasingly polarized atmosphere.

Republic TV is one of a number of outlets that have prospered under the government of Mr. Modi and his governing Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P. Indian news outlets, particularly the television networks, have taken an increasingly conservative turn. Programs on those networks regularly denounce critics of the government’s record on human rights, income inequality, joblessness or the coronavirus pandemic as non-patriots or separatist sympathizers.

In recent years, Republic TV has made a name for itself by embracing right-wing causes and aggressively backing Mr. Modi’s administration. Senior officials routinely appear on Republic, interviews they seldom give to other news outlets considered to be more critical of the government.

But the network’s relationship with the local administration in Mumbai is more fraught. The state government is run by a coalition of parties that resisted the B.J.P.’s effort to join.

Since then, the rivalry between Mr. Modi’s administration and the regional government in Maharashtra, the state that includes Mumbai, has intensified. Both have used public institutions, including investigating agencies, to target each other.

Accusations of ratings manipulation have brought those tensions to the fore. The police have said that Republic TV inflated its audience ratings by paying people the equivalent of a few dollars a month to tune in to the station and leave their televisions on. According to a 1,400 page charge sheet filed by the Mumbai police, the alleged practice has been going on for about two years.

The accusations have led to increased scrutiny of how ratings data are compiled. The data, gathered by an industry group, can make the difference between a strong and weak year in terms of advertising revenue.

Faiz Ullah, a media professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, said initial investigations seemed to suggest that the ratings system was open to manipulation.

“People have been given a free TV, their power bills paid and given some cash to watch a particular news channels,” Professor Ullah said of the practice of artificially bolstering the figures. “There is no transparency. The system needs to change.”

The industry group behind the ratings data, the Broadcast Audience Research Council, has said it will suspend issuing viewing figures while it conducts a review.

So far, the authorities have arrested 13 people on suspicion of cheating, forgery or criminal conspiracy in relation to the ratings manipulation allegations.

The police in Mumbai have been circling Republic TV for other reasons, too. Early last month, they arrested Mr. Goswami, the face of Republic TV, on suspicion of abetting a suicide. He was later released on bail.

Citing bias from officials in Mumbai, Republic TV has requested that the ratings investigation be shifted away from local authorities and given to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is under the control of Mr. Modi.

Last week, the Indian Supreme Court turned down a plea by Republic TV seeking protection against arrest for its employees.

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