The Mumbai police’s investigation into the , allegedly involving Republic TV and a couple of Marathi news channels, has generated a lot of noise in recent days. While Republic TV in particular has painted the investigation as political vendetta, its rivals have portrayed it as evidence of the channel’s unethical practices. The noise has drowned out a distressing fact: similar cases of TRP manipulation in the past have gone nowhere.
Case in point: TRP manipulation allegedly favouring the Hindi news channel India News.
In March 2018, Hansa Research filed a police complaint against five people for manipulating TRPs in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. Hansa Research is a private firm contracted by BARC to install and maintain barometers, which the TV ratings measurement body uses to calculate TRPs. Two years later, the same company would alert the police to the alleged TRP manipulation scam in Mumbai. To understand what this "scam" is about about and why it has created such a media storm, read this explainer, or watch this one.
In its complaint to the Gwalior police, Hansa Research accused Vinod Kulshreshtha, Mahesh Kushwah, Kuldeep Shrivastav, Dharmendra Pradhan, and Gyanendra Shrivastav of bribing families that had barometers installed on their TV sets to watch only India News. The families, all in the city’s Madhoganj area, were each being paid Rs 500 per month.
The accused were all employed by Hansa Research when they were running the alleged scam, except Vinod who had left the company.
"They violated the conditions of their contracts and circulated confidential information of the company to TV news channels, thereby causing financial loss and diminishing the reputation of the company," the complaint stated.
Mahesh and Vinod live in Gwalior, whereas Gyanendra, Kuldeep and Dharmendra are from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.
Sarvesh Kumar Yadav at the Madhoganj police station, where Hansa filed the complaint, said the accused were all promptly chargesheeted. “We arrested Gyanendra on April 3, and Kuldeep and Dharmendra on April 9,” he added. “Mahesh and Vinod were issued notices on April 8, and they produced themselves before the police. They were booked for cheating and released on bail.”
Mahesh and Vinod obtained anticipatory bail. The others spent around two months in jail before they were granted bail by the Madhya Pradesh High Court. They had to pay bail bonds of Rs one lakh each, and agree to appear before the trial court at least once every month and not leave India without the permission of the trial court or the investigating officer.
In March 2019, Kuldeep was exempted from appearing in court every month after he pleaded that he could not afford to travel from Kanpur to Gwalior so frequently.
The trial court has listed the case for hearing on 35 occasions in the past two years, but it is nowhere near resolution. On two of those occasions the judge was on leave and on another he was transferred. Twice, lawyers were on strike. Arguments about framing charges started on June 7, 2018 and continued until March 19, 2019. Hearings on recording evidence began on April 12, and are still going on. The next hearing is set for January 21 next year.
“There should be a special law for offences related to TRP manipulation, or nothing substantial will change,” argued Deependra Kushwah, a lawyer at the Madhya Pradesh High Court, who is involved with the case. “The Indian Penal Code sections currently used for such offences are of cheating and it’s not difficult to get bail in such cases. In our country trial takes a long time so even if a new act is introduced for this crime, trial should be fast-tracked."
He added, “This case in Gwalior is similar to that in Mumbai, its legal implications are also the same. But the case in Mumbai is being highlighted whereas the Gwalior case wasn’t given much attention. I think it got more coverage because of the hostility between the Mumbai police and Republic TV.”
Newslaundry contacted Dinesh Kaushal, Gwalior’s additional superintendent of police when the case was filed, and Vinay Sharma, then the station house officer of Madhoganj, to ask about the alleged TRP scam. Neither could recall specific details about it, except that it was similar to what has been reported in Mumbai.
“Whether it is the Gwalior case or the Mumbai complaint, neither will stand even under the sections of cheating or criminal breach of trust,” said a lawyer at the Mumbai High Court who asked not to be named. “The reason is that the complaint in both cases was filed not by the advertisers being cheated by the particular channels but by Hansa Research, which hasn’t suffered any financial loss because of the manipulation. So, in that sense, this is not a case of cheating. There is no criminal breach of trust either since no property has been entrusted. The only reason the Mumbai TRP case is being hyped is that the police want to go after Republic TV. It has become more a political witch-hunt than a legal case.”
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