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It’s a tough legal battle for Mangalam TV with its top brass booked for airing a sexually explicit audio clip involving a state minister which they claimed was submitted by a harassed housewife

 ~By Naveen Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

Kerala, which is among the most literate states in the country, also has a record number of vernacular news channels that jostle for space in an ever-shrinking news environment. This week it set another record, albeit a dubious one. Perhaps for the first time in the state the entire top brass of a local news channel, Mangalam TV, the latest entrant in the market, had to go behind bars.

Their crime was laying a honey trap for the sake of generating sensational news. Mangalam TV allegedly “caught” state transport minister AK Saseendran indulging in a sex chat on the phone with a housewife who had approached him for help. His lewd conversation (almost a monologue) shocked and outraged the entire state on March 26 morning and the minister was left with no choice but to tender his resignation. But the story did not end there.

A week after the scandal shook the conscience of the entire state and deeply embarrassed the Left government, ten members of the TV channel who the police believe had played an active role in trapping the minister and recording his audio were arrested. The action was not initiated by the state machinery cracking down on an “unfriendly” channel but was the outcome of the press demanding action against Mangalam TV for tarnishing the image of the media in general and women journalists in particular.

CEO BOOKED

The channel’s CEO, R Ajith Kumar and the head of the Investigation Team, R Jayachandran have been taken into police custody for two days while a news coordinating editor and two news editors have been remanded to 14 days of judicial custody by the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Thiruvananthapuram. They were booked under Section 67 A of the Information Technology Act 2000 and 120 (B) of the Indian Penal Code. Five others including the Chairman of the channel Sajan Varghese have been let off on bail by the police.

While 67A of the IT Act pertains to “punishment for publishing or transmitting of material containing sexually explicit act, etc., in electronic form”, Section 120 (B) deals with criminal conspiracy to commit an offence. It was very clear from the outset that Section 67A of the IT Act would be slapped given that the channel had telecast and published on its website the explicit sex chat involving the minister. But the conspiracy angle is something that the police would need to investigate and gather evidence.

Advocate Mujeeb Rahuman of the Nationalist Youth Congress is the petitioner in the case. He says, “Apart from the offence of transmitting sexually explicit material the channel has also done cyber forgery by editing the clip according to their wish. The sound of the woman is nowhere there which means it’s a clear conspiracy to trap the minister rather than a genuine sting done with any journalistic purpose.’’ Rahuman has also submitted a petition to the Indian Broadcasting Foundation regarding the nature of the aired audio clip pointing out that it was in violation of the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act 1995.

The channel had claimed all the while that the audio clip it aired was of the minister making a sexual advance to a housewife who had approached him for help. The channel claimed it had sourced the recording from her. But within a week’s time the CEO himself came on air to reveal that it was indeed a sting operation done by a woman journalist of the channel and that there was no housewife involved.

The Mangalam Group

It is into media and various other businesses

Mangalam TV which was launched last week is a subsidiary of Mangalam Publications which was started by entrepreneur, MC Varghese, in Kottayam, Central Kerala. The group made its mark with the monthly journal, Mangalam, launched in 1969 which soon became a weekly due to its huge popularity among middle class readers in Kerala. By 1984, it notched up a circulation of more than 1.5 million copies, becoming one of India’s leading vernacular weeklies.

Mangalam weekly which had made a space for itself in the market by serialising frothy novellas and running short stories launched its daily which unlike the magazine never became a front runner. The daily had always had a long history of run-ins with the law and often got slapped with defamation cases for its sensational reporting.

Varghese and his sons soon diversified into various other business including health, confectionary, hospitality and education while keeping their core focus on its publications. The family runs hospitals, a school and a couple of colleges in the state. It also runs the children’s magazine, Balamangalam.

Mangalam TV is the latest venture from the group.

A LONG LEGAL BATTLE

More trouble lay in store for Mangalam TV. Close on heels of the sting controversy, the Parappanangadi police station in North Kerala received a cyber complaint from a 20-year-old girl that her picture was circulated by the CEO and a news editor of the channel through a WhatsApp group and other social media platforms. “The picture was clicked at a college function sometime ago when the minister (Saseendran) had come to inaugurate it. I happened to be a volunteer and some mediaperson clicked a picture when the minister greeted me. Now I am shocked to find that on social media,’’ the girl who wanted to maintain her anonymity told India Legal. The picture in question, the girl alleges, was perhaps circulated to project the minister as a person with a glad eye but it had defamed her.

Journalism in Kerala has certainly hit an all-time low with the Saseendran sting and senior journalists are a worried lot. C Gowridasan, bureau chief of The Hindu told India Legal: “It is not as if journalistic ethics have crumbled in Kerala. But now we will all be painted with the same brush which means anybody can question our credibility. I think with this one irresponsible act we have played into the hands of those who want to tame this profession.’’

Meanwhile, the mysterious woman journalist who conducted the sting operation finally surfaced before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Thiruvananthapuram on April 6 with a petition which clearly says her side of the story. Nazila Nazimuddin, a senior sub editor at the channel claims that the former minister had actually made sexual advances to her following which she had informed the channel’s CEO that she would like to raise the issue before the State Women’s Commission in the state and other concerned authorities. But the channel head had coaxed her into believing that it was not the best option and a sting would be more effective.

But there seemed to be a lot of unanswered questions in her statement that has now been recorded by the court. If the woman had indeed faced sexual advances from the minister it constituted a crime and steps needed to have been taken by her organisation as per the guidelines of the Supreme Court laid down in the Vishaka case in 1997. In that context the CEO could be held liable for concealing the information.

Also, Nazimuddin claims she wanted to come live on television and declare that it was she who had done the sting operation to expose the minister. But the channel denied her that permission and weaved the story of a sexually harassed housewife instead.

For the editorial team of Mangalam TV it looks like tough times ahead with the government being given a reason to crackdown on it. It might well be the beginning of a huge legal battle for entire Mangalam media group itself.

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