Claiming “irresponsible reporting by certain media houses,” several Bollywood filmmakers and producers have filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court against two of India’s television channels.
The civil suit was filed in the wake of the channels’ reporting in the aftermath of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Named in the suit are Republic TV and its editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami and journalist Pradeep Bhandari, and Times Now and its editor-in-chief Rahul Shivshankar and anchor Navika Kumar.
The plaintiffs include the Producers Guild of India, Screenwriters Association, Cine & TV Artists Association and several top actors and their production houses, including Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgn, Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma. The list, comprising 38 production houses and film companies, represents almost all family-owned outposts, privately held companies and corporate studios in the Indian film fraternity.
Reliance Entertainment, which has two big-budget films coming up, “Sooryavanshi” and “’83,” is also a plaintiff. CEO Shibasish Sarkar declined to comment, saying everyone involved has been advised to stay silent. Directors Rohit Shetty, Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar also declined to comment.
The investigation by the All India Institute of Medical Science into Rajput’s death concluded that it was a suicide, dismissing theories of strangulation and poisoning.
In the course of reporting on the case, the two channels named in the civil suit have been accused of sensationalizing events and drawing attention away from serious matters concerning the country.
In response, Times Now’s Shivshankar tweeted: “The Left has been trying to throttle @TIMESNOW for a while. This is latest attempt by proxy. By selectively commenting about ‘toxic’ news certain journos are betraying real motive behind the move. It could be you tomorrow”.
Shivshankar’s colleague, Navika Kumar tweeted: “If fighting for justice invites court cases, bring it on.”
Last month, the Delhi High Court advised media houses to exercise restraint in the wake of actor Rakul Preet Singh’s petition against unsubstantiated claims that connected her to a drug case, in which actor Rhea Chakraborty — Rajput’s former girlfriend — is accused.
“I have not come across any such civil suit where two news channels have been sued by all major production houses in the country,” said Nitish Kashyap, legal journalist with Live Law covering the Bombay High Court.
“There are cases of media houses being sued by individuals, etc, be it print or electronic media, but this is unprecedented in my opinion.”
Kashyap said that it is difficult to speculate on the Delhi High Court’s view, but there is another case before the Bombay High Court where a large number of people, including former Indian Police Service officers, have alleged “media trials” in the Rajput death case. Senior advocate Anand Desai, a partner at DSK Legal, the firm representing the plaintiffs, declined to comment.
The suit filed by DSK Legal states: “The livelihood of persons associated with Bollywood is being severely impacted by the smear campaign being run by the defendants. This is in addition to the ongoing pandemic which has resulted in extreme revenues and work opportunity loss.”
The suit alleges that the privacy of members of Bollywood has been invaded and “their reputations are being irreparably damaged by painting the entire Bollywood as criminals, seeped in drug culture, and making being part of Bollywood as synonymous with criminal acts in the public imagination.”
Girish Johar, a box office analyst, said that the civil suit will most likely not color the opinions of Hindi cinema patrons.
“I see this as an issue of crossing the ethics line,” said Johar. “It’s about how the media channels have gone overboard in hindsight with a specific agenda to tarnish certain individuals.”
This is not the first time Republic TV has been entrenched in legal controversies. Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh, revealed that the city’s law enforcement is currently investigating a scam about manipulation of Television Rating Points (TRPs) by tampering with the devices used by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India, which has the mandate to measure television audience in India. The police also recorded the statements of two senior Hansa officials in connection with the scam. Hansa is the agency that measures TRPs of various channels for BARC that determines advertisement revenues for TV channels. Besides Republic TV, Box Cinema and Marathi channel Fakt Marathi have been accused of TRP manipulation during the preliminary investigations. The fake TRP racket surfaced when BARC filed a complaint through Hansa Research Group.
A statement released by Republic TV says, “The Republic Media Network would also like to place on record that the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s action is a continuing chapter in the witch-hunt of the Maharashtra Government and Shiv Sena which on 10 September, 2020 issued a warning to all cable distributors not to carry channels of the Republic Media Network or else face consequences.”
At the same time, the channel is also navigating hot waters with regards to its reportage of sensitive subjects. The Mumbai Police has sent a show cause notice to Goswami asking him why a chapter proceeding under Section 108 of the Criminal Procedure Code should not be initiated against him. It comes in the wake of what is allegedly objectionable coverage of two incidents – lynching of sadhus, and the issue of migrants gathering during lockdown – and states that Goswami and Republic TV incited communal tension between Hindu and Muslims. The notice was sent on October 10.
Republic TV along with Times Now have both been established as right-wing pro-BJP voices. “Isn’t it obvious?” asked actor and independent politician Prakash Raj. “[The channels] are trying to form an opinion [in the minds of audiences] of the one party that is ruling? It’s our responsibility to stand up. This isn’t a match of Bollywood against the two channels. It’s about the country’s media houses that are setting a narrative that is dangerous.”
(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.)
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