TRP manipulation probe: Republic TV CEO reaches Mumbai police headquarters

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Republic TV CEO Vikas Khanchandani reached the Mumbai Police headquarters for questioning in TRP manipulation case. The police on Saturday had sent summons to five others — Republic TV COOs Hersh Bhandari and Priya Mukherjee, channel’s distribution head Ghanshyam Singh, CEO of Hansa Research Group Praveen Nijhara and another employee — in the alleged fake TRP fraud probe. All six have been asked to report at 9am on Sunday. “Few fresh summons have been issued to probe the financial angle in the TRP scam case. They all have been asked to join the investigation on Sunday morning” said Milind Bharambe, joint commissioner of police, crime branch.

Meanwhile. Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Republic TV, has denied all allegations and put out a video message on the channel’s website on Friday stating the “channel’s name was not mentioned in the FIR”. He claimed the channel was being targeted for its coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput case, and added that the channel would sue the police.

Mumbai Police officers said Singh was being summoned for the second time after he was issued a summons on October 9 to which he responded saying he was out of the city till October 16.

But a second summons has been issued by the crime branch for him for October 11 at 9am.

Earlier in the day, Republic TV’s chief financial officer (CFO) Shiva Sundaram wrote to Mumbai Police, stating he would be available to join investigations by October 14-15 and has asked the Mumbai Police to not proceed with the probe till a writ petition in the matter is heard by the Supreme Court.

“I refer to the above summons issued by you on October 9, 2020 asking me to be present at your office on October 10, 2020 at 11pm for the purpose of your investigation in the subject First Information Report. At the outset, I would express my commitment to cooperate in the said investigations,” Sundaram says in his letter.

The letter then goes on to request Mumbai Police to halt investigations till the hearing of the writ petition filed before the Supreme Court.

“I wish to bring to your notice that a writ petition under Article 32 has been filed before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India (Provisional application number 7848/2020) in relation to the above referred matter and we have requested for an early hearing and it is likely to be listed by next week. Given that the matter is to be listed soon before the Hon’ble Supreme Court, I request you to not proceed any further with the investigations in so far as Republic TV and its employees are concerned. We will join the investigations subject to the orders of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.’

The letter ends by stating, “I would also like to inform you that on account of some personal commitments I am scheduled to travel outside Mumbai for the next few days and accordingly will only be available in Mumbai by 14-15 October, 2020.”

Bharambe confirmed receiving the letter. “CFO of Republic TV, S Sundaram, gave a letter to the police to reschedule the summons which was issued to him on October 9 to join the investigation,” Bharambe said.

Meanwhile, Sam Balsara, founder, chairman and managing director of Madison World, reached Mumbai police headquarters to aid the investigations.

The alleged fake TRP case was registered after Mumbai Police claimed to have busted a TRP manipulation racket following a complaint by TV viewership measurement agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). The police said Republic TV and two other local Mumbai channels were involved in manipulating the crucial data which indicates which TV programmes are viewed the most and is often used by advertisers for decisions related to ad spend.

Crime branch ropes in EOW to probe money trail

Mumbai crime branch, which is probing the financial angle, has also roped in the assistance of the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) after it found that more than a crore of rupees was transferred to the bank account of accused Bompalli Rao Mistry alias Sanjiv Rao in the past ten months. The agency has also written to the GST office and income-tax department for a comprehensive investigation into the financial aspect in the TRP fraud case.

“The money was deposited in five to six transactions, and the crime branch is tracking down the source of the money. Some amount was deposited by owners of Box Cinema, Fakt Marathi. There are a few others transactions which we are currently studying,” said a senior crime branch officer.

Crime branch officials said that Mistry used to give ₹20,000 to arrested accused Vishal Bhandari every month to distribute it to households where barometers were installed. Crime branch officials added that statements of 33 of the 83 households controlled by Bhandari have been recorded, and seven teams have been formed to arrest six accused wanted in five different states. Two of the wanted accused have been identified as Dinesh Vishwakarma and Vinay Tripathi, both former employees of Hansa Research Private Limited. Vishwakarma, crime branch officials said, had recruited Vishal Bhandari in March 2019 and used to give him money to distribute in household where barometers were installed from November 2019 to May 2020.

Inspector Sachin Vaze, who heads the crime intelligence unit (CIU) and part of the investigating team, said, “Five to six accused are wanted in the case. The crime branch have formed several teams and they are currently in five states to trace the wanted accused”. Police have recorded the statement of 33 households out of 83 who were monitored by Vishal Bhandari, added Vaze.

Head honchos of advertising firms asked to submit details

Crime branch officials said that Sam Balsara, founder, chairman and managing director of Madison World, and Shashi Sinha, CEO of IPG Media brands, were questioned for close to six hours. Balsara and Sinha have been asked to submit details of how many advertisements they had received in the past two years, and to which channels the advertisements were given. Crime branch officials have also asked them to submit the rates at which the advertisements were given to the channels and the revenue they collected from the advertisements.

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