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Indian Police Accuse Popular TV Station of Ratings Fraud

NEW DELHI — Ever since it hit the airwaves three years ago, Republic TV has been one of India’s most-watched, most-talked-about and most-contentious television news channels.

Its lead anchor, Arnab Goswami, has made a name for himself shouting down opponents, embracing right-wing causes and aggressively backing up Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-leaning administration.

In turn, Republic TV’s ratings have soared.

But this week, police officials in Mumbai accused Republic TV and two smaller channels of rigging the ratings system by paying poor people the equivalent of a few dollars a month to tune into the station and leave their televisions on. In some cases, police officials said, people being bribed to watch the English-language channel did not speak English and were annoyed to tie up their television sets with programming that they couldn’t even understand.

Those viewership levels are not just a source of pride: They are also a major factor in a station’s ad revenue, therefore fueling its continuing ability to shape the public discourse.

Republic TV’s dominance has emerged at a time when many Indian journalists say that their freedoms have been eroded under Mr. Modi’s government and that he has tried to manipulate the country’s news media, especially the airwaves, like no other prime minister in decades.

Mr. Goswami, a co-founder of the channel, has strongly denied the accusations of bribery, saying that he was being targeted because of recent coverage that was critical of the Mumbai police. He seems to thrive on confrontation and has used this moment to rally his millions of viewers.

“Come to my house, come to my office, if you have the guts,” he taunted the police on Thursday night. “Come and arrest me!” He called Mumbai’s police chief, Param Bir Singh, “a spineless man” and “a pliable tool.”

The news that Republic TV had fallen under investigation struck like an earthquake among the country’s media elite. Mr. Goswami is one of India’s best-known darlings on the political right, and throughout Friday, other news channels ran wall-to-wall coverage of the investigation.

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Credit…Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

A free press has played a crucial role in protecting India’s democracy since the country’s independence from Britain in 1947. But under Mr. Modi, liberal media outlets have been repeatedly targeted by senior government officials, who have berated editors, cut off advertising and ordered tax investigations.

At the same time, right-leaning media organizations like Republic TV, which some refer to as the Fox News of India, are often given preferential treatment.

In Mumbai, the tables are somewhat turned. The state government is controlled not by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party but by an alliance of parties, including the Indian National Congress, that are rivals to Mr. Modi.

So even though Mr. Goswami is a friend to the central government, in Mumbai he plays the role of the opposition, hammering state officials and wearing down interviewees in a barrage of loud invective. He recently unleashed a tirade against the Mumbai police, accusing them of bungling an investigation into the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, a popular actor who died in June, apparently by suicide.

Media commentators said that it was difficult to determine exactly what was behind the bribery accusations, and that the ratings system had been flawed for years.

Sevanti Ninan, a media columnist in New Delhi, said that if Republic TV did tamper with its ratings, it would indicate that their sensational coverage is less of a draw. “It would show that their so-called success is not a reflection of the success of their journalism,” she said.

There is also suspicion, especially in the Modi camp, that the police are going after Mr. Goswami because of his political views.

“Targeting of the media by #Congress and its allies is against all principles of democracy and is unacceptable,” Mr. Modi’s broadcast minister, Prakash Javadekar, wrote on Twitter.

Ms. Ninan said, “Seeing that the investigation has barely begun, the alacrity with which the Mumbai police called a press conference certainly raises questions, especially given the way Republic TV has been attacking the Mumbai police on their channel for the past few months.”

Credit…Indranil Mukherjee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To determine television viewership in India, certain households are selected to have a meter attached to their television to monitor which channels they watch. These findings are then aggregated to gauge various channels’ popularity, which can make or break them: The more viewers a channel can draw, the more money it can demand for commercials.

The most recent ratings showed Republic TV as the No. 1 English-language news channel. Its Hindi version attracted an even bigger audience — approximately 40 times as many viewers.

Police officials said that a former employee of a research company hired by the Broadcast Audience Research Council, India’s ratings agency, admitted to having paid households to keep their sets tuned to Republic TV for a specific period each day.

“We have interrogated such customers who were approached and manipulated,” Mr. Singh, Mumbai’s police chief, said in a news conference on Thursday. “They admitted that they were paid money to operate that particular channel.”

Police officials said they were investigating “suspicious trends” from two other smaller channels, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema.

One of the police documents also mentioned another channel, India Today, though the police later said they had no solid evidence against it.

The charges under investigation include breach of trust, cheating and conspiracy. Police officials said they had arrested four people and were preparing to interrogate executives of Republic TV.

Mr. Goswami’s position: Bring it on.

“If you have the guts, Param Bir Singh,” he said in his taunt directed at the police chief on Thursday, “face me in an interview.”