Modi govt suspends news channel Lokshahi Marathi’s licence for second time in 5 months

The I&B ministry has imposed a 30-day broadcasting ban on the channel.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
Date:
The logos of Lokshahi Marathi and I&B Ministry.
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The broadcasting licence of Maharashtra news channel Lokshahi Marathi has been suspended by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry for 30 days, citing “blatant and continuous” violations of policy guidelines.  

This is the second such action against the TV news outlet within a period of five months. The I&B ministry had imposed a 72-hour ban on the channel on September 22 last year after it aired a “sexually explicit” video allegedly featuring BJP leader Kirit Somaiya.

Lokshahi Marathi editor-in-chief Kamlesh Sutar told Newslaundry that the news channel has been operational for about four years, since January 2020, but the ministry had “started picking out problems” with it over the last five months. 

He claimed that the media outlet had begun broadcasting “only after acquiring all the permissions and with the required documentation”. But the ministry had cited “incomplete documentation” and “errors" for the 30-day broadcasting ban. 

Sutar said the January 9 ban order had come as a “shock”, and that the company had been asked to “complete the required paperwork” within 30 days. 

Newslaundry looked at the copy of the order issued by I&B ministry under secretary Hamsa Ravishankar to Zora Traders, which owns Lokshahi Marathi

The order said the media outlet had been sourcing its content from a third party, Swaraj Marathi Broadcasting LLP, without prior approval by the ministry. 

The order said it was a violation of the ministry’s “essential condition of permission”.    

It said while Zora Traders had been granted permission to operate Lokshahi Marathi news channel, it was only allowed to generate its own content for news and current affairs. 

The I&B ministry also stated that Zora Traders did not have the “basic infrastructure” or studio to create its content, and it also did not “incur any expenditure on manpower” to create content. “The entire process of content creation, generation is done by M/s Swaraj Marathi Broadcasting LLP which is not a permitted entity,” the order stated.

A submission filed by Zora Traders, seen by Newslaundry, stated that Swaraj Marathi Broadcasting LLP and Zora Traders were owned by Bahubali Shantilal Shah and were sister firms, and it would bring all its media operations under the latter.   

Sutar, meanwhile, pointed to “targeted action” by the ministry. He said, “Over the past four months, the ministry has suddenly demanded documentation related to the organisation, which we have been providing on a timely basis.” 

He said the company responded to the first show-cause notice issued on November 17, 2023, and also appeared before the ministry on December 14, 2023, to “request more time to make necessary arrangements” and bring the “entire activity of the channel” under Zora Traders “as required by the ministry”. 

Meanwhile, Mumbai Press Club demanded that Lokshahi Marathi be allowed to resume broadcasting. In a statement issued on January 10, it said that “these technical objections were nothing but a fig leaf for finding fault to shut down the channel”, and the 30-day suspension could be a “death knell”. 

The statement said: “These technical objections are nothing but a fig leaf for finding fault to shut down the channel as a counterattack for having shown a politician from a ruling party in a poor light. Without commenting on the journalistic ethics on whether the sex life of politicians should be exposed or not, the Press Club finds it strange that there should be crocodile tears for a politician who, day in and day out, is involved in highlighting the wrongdoings of rival politicians and social figures.”

The press body further said that the order of suspension revealed that Lokshahi Marathi’s submissions in its defence were “hardly considered” and instead had been “summarily dismissed”.

“In today’s age of high competition among news channels, a suspension order of 30 days can be the death knell of a TV channel. In the interests of free speech, the Mumbai Press Club demands that the suspension order against Lokshahi Marathi be immediately withdrawn and the channel be allowed to resume operations,” said the statement. 

A Kirit Somaiya link?

Sutar said the 72-hour broadcast ban imposed in September last year, in the wake of the Kirit Somaiya video controversy, was revoked by the Delhi High Court. “It is important to note that we had filed a case against the ban and the high court had ruled in our favour within 24 hours.”

He said that although the “reason for the broadcast ban was different this time”, they would “again fight the case legally”. He said the company would move court against the ministry’s action. 

“We are confident that we will get justice from the court this time as well,” said Sutar, adding that Lokshahi Marathi will continue its “fearless journalism” through its YouTube channel. 

The Mumbai-based channel has been in constant trouble since its video report on the “sexually explicit” clips, allegedly of BJP leader Kirit Somaiya, was aired on July 17 last year.

The channel had reportedly intended to raise questions of “privacy concerns” while broadcasting the clips. During the show, Sutar said that “if the privacy of such a big leader can be compromised using technology, then the privacy of common citizens is also in danger.” 

He repeatedly said on the show that his “intent was not to defame”, but that the channel wanted to highlight that a leader “fighting against corruption” was being targeted.

The video had triggered a political storm in Maharashtra, with the police initiating an inquiry into the matter a day later. 

Maharashtra deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis also ordered a police probe into the issue after leader of opposition Ambadas Danve submitted a pen drive with Somaiya’s alleged video clips to the chair of Maharashtra legislative council Neelam Gorhe. Fadnavis had said that a detailed investigation would be conducted and “no one would be spared”.

Following the probe orders, a team of Mumbai crime branch police raided Lokshahi Marathi’s Mumbai office in Anderi East locality and seized the video footage. They also demanded that the channel reveal its source. However, the channel refused to reveal the identity of its source. 

On August 10, Somaiya sent a legal notice to Lokshahi and its editor-in-chief Sutar alleging breach of privacy. 

Following the notice, four BJP MLAs from Mumbai submitted complaints against Lokshahi Marathi to I&B minister Anurag Thakur and TRAI chairman PD Vaghela. While MLAs Yogesh Sagar and Parag Shah sent their complaints to Thakur, MLAs Mihir Kotecha and Ram Kadam filed it with Vaghela. A total of four complaints were filed between August 5 and 14.

In response to the complaints, the I&B ministry served a notice to Zora Traders stating that the video story on Somaiya was in violation of the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995. It demanded a reply from the company within a week.

The notice sent by I&B ministry deputy director Prateek Jain stated that during the show, the anchor cited some politicians to portray that Somaiya had misused his connections in government agencies, such as the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI, to abuse women. 

It said the anchor tried to tarnish the image of Somaiya, and also did not reach out to him for his statement. An FIR was lodged at Mumbai’s cyber police station against Sutar on September 5. He was booked under charges of defamation and violation of the IT Act. 

On September 22, Lokshahi Marathi was served the 72-hour ban notice by the I&B ministry. The channel’s broadcast remained suspended for the next 24 hours and only began after it was granted relief by Delhi High Court on September 23. 

Sutar said, “We are here to do journalism and not to take sides of any political party. As a journalist, it's our job to ask questions to the government in power, irrespective of which party it belongs to, and we will continue to do so.”

Newslaundry reached out to the office of I&B ministry under secretary Hamsa Ravishankar with queries on the matter. This report will be updated on receiving their response. 

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