Around midnight on September 29, the Karnataka police blacked out Power TV, a Kannada news channel headquartered in Bengaluru which employs about 250 journalists.
A posse of policemen, led by the deputy commissioner KP Ravi Kumar, took the channel off air by disconnecting broadcasting equipment such as the live switcher and the computers connected to the main server. They also took control of the channel’s Facebook and YouTube accounts.
At the precise moment the police pulled the plug on Power TV, the channel was aggressively promoting an investigative story about a public works scam allegedly involving the son and grandson of the chief minister, BS Yediyurappa.
The police had obtained a court order to search Power TV’s offices, and collect archival material. Instead, they pulled it off air. They had no authorisation to do so.
Although Power TV limped back on air on October 7, using hired and refurbished equipment, their social media accounts remained with the police. The channel petitioned the Karnataka High Court to direct the police to return their equipment as well as social media accounts. When the matter came up for hearing on October 9, its advocate, AS Ponnanna, argued, “The channel was taken off air with a clear intention to stop them from exposing the chief minister and his family.” The court reserved its order.
The channel’s managing director, Rakesh Shetty, is still absconding. His associates claim Shetty’s life is in danger. He has also contracted coronavirus.
TV channels have been blacked out before this country. But the blackouts were temporary and mostly aimed at curbing sexually explicit content.
The first time a news channel was ordered off air purportedly for political reasons was in November 2016 when the Narendra Modi government issued a . The government said the channel’s coverage of the Fidayeen attack on the Pathankot airbase had compromised national security.
More recently, the Modi government banned the Malayalam news channels Asianet and Media One for 48 hours for their coverage of the Delhi carnage. Strangely, as , one of the reasons cited in the order banning Media One was that its reporting “questions RSS and alleges Delhi police inaction” and that the TV channel “seems to be critical towards Delhi police and RSS”. RSS is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fount of Modi’s BJP.
The ban, however, was lifted within a few hours after Asianet, owned by BJP MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar, to the government.
The Modi regime was roundly criticised for banning these channels and accused of censoring the media.
But what happened to Power TV has never happened to any private news broadcaster in India. A news channel has never been pulled off air by a group of policemen without authorisation.
It should have become an international press freedom issue by now. Yet, the channel got little by way of solidarity from even Karnataka’s journalistic fraternity.
In the mainstream English press, only the Hindu . It noted: “Police seizures at Kannada news channel Power TV, which had recently aired a series of stories claiming to expose corruption by Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa’s family members, has disrupted the broadcast of the channel from Monday night.”
The digital news websites , and News Minute carried more detailed stories hinting at political vendetta. None of the Kannada news channels or newspapers reported the raid and the blackout. The website Oneindia Kannada, though, carried a series of updates about the fate of the channel after its blackout.
The Karnataka Union of Working Journalists submitted a carefully worded memorandum to the government condemning the police action against the channel as “illegal” while distancing themselves from Shetty.
“A very important public interest issue involving corruption in high office got sidetracked because of the way the story was reported,” said KUWJ president Shivanand Tagadur. “It wouldn’t have been so easy for the government to take them down if they had stuck to straightforward journalistic processes.”
A cross-section of journalists from Karnataka’s English and Kannada media who spoke with Newslaundry offered three main reasons for not making the Power TV blackout an issue of press freedom.
First, they didn’t approve of the way the channel reported the story on Yediyurappa’s family. Second, they regarded Shetty as a dubious character. Finally, they cited a local court order restraining the media from reporting on the alleged scam involving the chief minister’s kin.
Story as drama, drama as story
Power TV first ran a promo of its investigation on September 2, titled “Saga of the Royal Family”. It didn’t provide many details of the alleged scam, only featuring an audio clip that purportedly implicated Yediyurappa’s son, BY Vijayendra, in a bribery case.
The channel, however, did not publish the story as announced in the promo.
The same day, a story appeared on an obscure film portal called Tupaki English that Anika D, a small-time actor and alleged drug peddler, had named 30 people from the Kannada film industry, including celebrities, as her clients during interrogation by the police’s Central Crime Branch, or CCB.
The next day, the media went into a tizzy as the news broke that the CCB had summoned the actor Ragini Dwivedi for interrogation in a drug-related case. She was arrested on September 5. Two days later, fellow actor Sanjjanaa Galrani was arrested as well.
Power TV too turned its attention to the drug raids and dropped the corruption story.
On September 8, meanwhile, a court in Devanahalli near Bengaluru issued an injunction barring the news media from publishing “false, baseless and reckless” allegations against the chief minister, his family members, and the BJP.
The injunction came on a petition filed by C Nagaraja Gowda, a BJP activist. He pleaded that Power TV had aired promos alleging a scam involving Vijayendra which “caused severe insult and embarrassment to the chief minister, his family and the BJP. The said allegations are baseless and without proof”.
On September 17, as Yediyurappa was travelling to Delhi to meet Modi to discuss the expansion of his cabinet, Power TV suddenly revived the corruption story after a fortnight’s silence.
Shetty, who isn’t a part of his channel’s editorial team, joined the anchor and principal editor, Rahman Hassan, in the studio. On live TV, he started releasing what he claimed were documents showing the money trail in the bribery case. The opposition Congress quickly latched on to the issue.
In Delhi, Yediyurappa’s meeting with the prime minister turned into a disaster. He did not get the party’s approval to expand his cabinet. , Modi expressed unhappiness with governance in Karnataka and urged Yediyurappa to consider giving up the chief minister’s post.
Between September 17 and 20, Power TV released what it claimed were transcripts of WhatsApp conversations between a contractor and Yediyurappa’s grandson Shashidhar Mardi in which they were discussing kickbacks. They also released bank statements allegedly showing that the bribe money was routed through shell companies into entities owned by Mardi.
On September 20, Vijayendra sent a legal notice to Shetty as well as the channel’s anchors, Rahman Hassan and Chandan Sharma. He alleged that Shetty had approached him in June to help transfer a police officer, a request he denied. Vijayendra’s notice claimed that following this snub, Shetty started making false allegations against him.
This prompted Shetty to take it to the next level. In a dramatic episode, he put a bouquet of flowers on an empty table in the studio and said it was an open invitation to Vijayendra to come for a debate.
On September 22, TJ Abraham, who claims to be an anti-corruption activist, filed a complaint with the CBI, alleging irregularities in the valuation of properties belonging to Power TV.
On September 23, Randeep Singh Surjewala, who oversees the Congress party’s affairs in Karnataka, held a press conference in Bengaluru and released the documents unearthed by Power TV to the rest of the media.
The matter, however, received scant coverage. Several journalists on the political beat confirmed to Newslaundry that they received communication from the chief minister's office alerting them to the court injunction on the matter.
On September 24, the Congress, citing the alleged bribery scandal, moved a no confidence motion against Yediyurappa’s government. Speaking in the Assembly, former chief minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress sought to know how Rs 5 crore had mysteriously landed in the accounts of a company owned by the chief minister’s grandson.
The same day, an FIR was registered at a Bengaluru police station against Shetty in which he was accused of extortion, fraud and blackmail. The complainant, Chandrakanh Ramalingam, was the contractor the channel had claimed was the source behind their exposé, the man who had allegedly been pressured for a bribe by the chief minister’s kin.
In his complaint, Ramalingam claimed that Shetty had tutored him to speak against Yediyurappa and his family. He also alleged that Shetty had tried to extort money from him. According to the complaint, Shetty on one occasion tried to pressure the New Mangalore Port Trust to award Ramalingam’s company a contract by falsely claiming that he was calling on behalf of union home minister Amit Shah.
Shetty responded by releasing a video of Ramalingam sitting in the Power TV office and recounting the alleged bribery episode. He’s heard implicating Yeddiyurappa and his kin. The channel claimed that Ramalingam had sought their help to expose Vijayendra but was now under pressure to scuttle the case.
Interestingly, Ramalingam was in 2016 after the agency found that he had managed to get his hands on Rs 46 lakh in newly minted currency after demonetisation. The cash, which was supposed to be put into ATMs, was allegedly diverted by bribing bank officials. In January 2017, an found that Ramalingam’s company had bagged government deals even while he was in prison.
On the day Ramalingam filed the FIR against Power TV, the channel also released recordings of three phone calls made to Shetty purportedly by the film producer Prashanth Sambaragi, a known BJP sympathiser. In the recordings, the man identified as Sambaragi allegedly tells Shetty that he has been asked to speak to him by a person identified as “Doddavaru”, or the big man, “V”, and “V for Victory”.
The caller also says he has good news from “Doddavaru” and that “Doddavaru” has asked Power TV to quote its price for running advertisements. The caller tells Shetty that he is on his way to meet him with a mediator and that the meeting should be held in Shetty’s car in the basement of the Power TV office. In the third and final call, he says the deal is off because of a stay order from the court and that the “big man” is off to Tirupati.
The channel did not reveal when the phone calls were made. “Was the phone call made after the September 2 promo? Is that the reason for the channel to hold the story for 15 days? Were they trying to negotiate a deal?” asked a seasoned Kannada journalist.
Incidentally, Sambaragi is at the centre of the police action against the Kannada actors. Positioning himself as a crusader against drugs in the film industry, he claims to have been assisting the police in identifying drug rings.
On September 25, an anti-corruption organisation, Janaadhikaara Sangharsha Parishath, filed a police complaint against Vijayendra and Mardi based on information provided by Power TV. The complaint asked for an FIR against Vijayendra and Mardi for receiving kickbacks.
Meanwhile, in the Karnataka Assembly, Siddaramaiah furnished the entire dossier unearthed by Power TV, including the WhatsApp transcripts and the voice recordings. He also released bank documents showing that money had been transferred to a company owned by Mardi.
The debate in the Assembly went on past midnight on September 26. While the Congress party’s no-confidence motion was defeated by the BJP with a simple voice vote, it wasn’t before Yediyurappa had vowed to quit politics if his family’s involvement in the scam was proved.
After a lull on Sunday, the police barged into Shetty’s house and conducted searches on the basis of the blackmail and extortion complaint filed by the contractor Ramalingam. Rahman too was detained for questioning for the entire day on September 28.
True to form, the channel responded by intensifying its campaign against Yediyurappa and his family. On September 29, DCP Ravi Kumar and his team entered the newsroom armed with a court order to search the premises. The order instructed the police to look for physical and digital evidence related to the case and not “harass the inmates”, or use their powers “beyond the requirements” of the investigation.
“We repeatedly told them we would cooperate in the investigation and provide all the archival material that they needed,” Rahman told Newslaundry. “But the police officers said they were under pressure to take the channel off air.”
Ravi Kumar contested this and claimed that the channel’s staff tried to stop the police from doing their duty. “We asked them decently to share all the documents and data related to the contractor Ramalingam,” he said. “They refused to share this information.”
So, Ravi Kumar said, the police had no option but to confiscate whatever documents and equipment they felt were necessary. “In the process, our team unknowingly took away equipment that was responsible for live broadcast,” he claimed, “We had no intention of taking the channel off air.”
The DCP, however, said by airing the video of Ramalingam after he had filed the police complaint, Power TV had sought to intimidate him and influence the investigation. “We advised them to not publish anything related to Ramalingam. Their lawyer, who was present, also advised them to do the same in front of everybody. But they continued their broadcast,” Ravi Kumar claimed.
He also confirmed that Shetty has tested positive for coronavirus. “We have information that he has travelled to 13 locations in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka since he went missing. By not isolating himself, he is putting people at risk of infection. We have booked him under the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 and the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897.”
On September 30, in a major embarrassment to Siddaramaiah and the Congress, which had backed Power TV, a video from April 2012 started doing the rounds in which a woman, supported by activists of a Kannada nationalist organization, is seen slapping Shetty. In the video the woman accuses Shetty of blackmail and sexual harassment. She claims Shetty had tried to force her into pornography.
The New Indian Express reported on April 4, 2012 that the woman had not filed a police complaint against Shetty, who was then the managing director of Tax Pro Business Solutions.
On September 29, Sugata Srinivarasaraju, an influential journalist and Karnataka observer, tweeted:
In an anticipatory bail application moved by Shetty, he claimed that Ramalingam was under political pressure to implicate him. Calling the allegations against him “false and concocted”, Shetty said he had never approached Ramalingam and that it was the other way round.
According to him, the contractor had asked him for help to protect him against bribe demands. He said Ramalingam had been coerced into filing a complaint against him to hush up the bribery scandal. After a lower court rejected the bail plea on October 9, Shetty went to the Karnataka High Court.
“The moment the sexual harassment case surfaced, Siddaramaiah distanced himself from the case,” the editor of one a top Kannada TV news channel told Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity. “Nobody in public life wants to be associated with a sexual harasser.”
Another editor of a leading Kannada news website expressed dismay at the state of the media. “The documents were there for everybody to see. How is Shetty’s past or his character a point of consideration when there is proof in black and white. Nothing prevented the rest of the media from verifying the documents independently,” he said.
About the injunction restraining reporting on the case, the editor said, “The court injunction just became an excuse for journalists to avoid reporting on the issue.”
The only news organisation that dared call the bluff on the injunction, albeit a little late in the day, was the Indian Express.
On October 10, the that documents scrutinised by it “show that Rs 5 crore was transferred through seven Kolkata companies to Belgravia Enterprises Pvt Ltd and VSS Estates Pvt Ltd, where Mardi is a director. The Kolkata companies share common addresses as per filings with the RoC but The Sunday Express visited the locations to find that none of them were operating from there. The rent agreements submitted by VSS Estates and Belgravia bear the same Bengaluru address as on June 15, 2020".
Mardi told the newspaper that the money was a “working loan” for a project and that his companies had records to back this up. He also said Power TV wanted to “tarnish” his family’s reputation.
Senior Congress leader VS Ugrappa accused the media of colluding with the government. “The injunction order merely prevents them from carrying false and malicious stories against the chief minister and his family,” he explained. “They could have easily carried the story on the basis of the documents. What is false and malicious about that?”
The scant importance given to Surjewala’s press conference came as a shock to his party. “A national-level leader of a 135-year-old party holds a press conference and nobody reports it properly. It shows the state of the media in Karnataka,” Ugrappa said. “Even when we presented the documents on the floor of the Assembly, the state’s news outlets played the issue down.”
Ugrappa dismissed the allegations against Shetty as unconnected with the main issue.
“So what if he is a fraud? Are the documents false? Shouldn't the focus be on the message and not the messenger?” he asked.
He added, “There is a case against Shetty for putting people at risk of Covid infection. But isn’t it clear that he is hiding from politically powerful people? What if his health deteriorates? Who will be responsible if something bad happens to him?”
He also contrasted the media’s coverage of the Vijayendra bribery allegation with that of the CBI raid on the properties of senior congress leader DK Shivakumar on October 6. “The media has become an extended arm of the BJP government,” he alleged.
Two weeks after Power TV was taken off air, the alleged corruption scandal seems to be fading into the background. In fact, even Power TV has stopped its tirade against Yediyurappa and his family.
The only people keen on keeping the case alive are the members of the anti-corruption group, Janaadhikaara Sangharsha Parishath.
After the police refused to register a case against Vijayendra and others, the organization’s co-president Adarsh Iyer issued a press statement on October 7, “We will fight this case and take it to its logical end. We will be filing a petition before the court and make sure that a proper investigation is carried out.”
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