ABP News Bows Down, Insiders Allege “Pressure From the Govt”

Managing Editor Milind Khandekar and anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai resigned amid allegations of “government pressure”.

5 min read
ABP News’ Managing Editor Milind Khandekar and primetime anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai have tendered their resignations amid allegations of “pressure from the Centre”.

It’s turbulent times at ABP News.

Managing Editor Milind Khandekar and primetime anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai have tendered their resignations amid allegations of “pressure from the Centre” doing the rounds. Senior journalist Abhisar Sharma has also reportedly gone “on leave”. These developments come days after Union Ministers such as Nirmala Sitharaman and Rajyavardhan Rathore tweeted against ABP News with the hashtag #UnfortunateJournalism, criticising a story that was critical of the government.

A well-placed source at ABP News told The Quint, “Journalists are being punished for merely doing their job. It’s a black day for journalism at ABP.”

Asked how exactly the channel was being pressurised, the source at ABP said, “Sponsors were pulling out, and not just government sponsors. There are private companies that stopped advertising on ABP.”

ABP Controversy Raised in Parliament

On Thursday, Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien expressed his dismay in the Rajya Sabha at the current situation in ABP News.

If journalists, once they express themselves freely, are going to be put under pressure that they will lose their jobs...Journalists have to be allowed to be free because if they do not express themselves...like what is happening today in a major group. Someone does a story which someone doesn’t like, next day they have to leave.
Derek O’Brien, TMC MP in the Rajya Sabha

On Friday, the Congress’ Mallikarjun Kharge raised the issue in the Lok Sabha, calling the developments at ABP an attempt by the Modi government to silence dissenting voices in the media.

I&B Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore responded by saying, “The information shown by this channel (in its story on a Chhattisgarh farmer) was false. Despite that, the government did not send a show cause notice to the channel. The said channel receives a lot of its viewership on free dish, which is under the government. If the government really wanted to interfere, we could have done so using our control on free dish. What is happening at the channel is a result of nobody wanting to watch it anymore.”

What Exactly Happened: The Chhattisgarh Controversy

On 20 June, PM Modi engaged in a video interaction with beneficiaries of several government programmes.

The Video Interaction With PM Modi

Chandramani Kaushik, a woman farmer from Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district, went on to become a talking point because of her presence on that show. During the interaction, Kaushik told Modi that her income had doubled after she switched from cultivating paddy to growing and processing custard apples.

Report 1: ABP’s Fact-check

As a follow-up, ABP News went and interviewed Kaushik, who claimed that officials had come to meet her before the video interaction with Modi, and that they tutored her to say that her income had doubled. ABP News aired the story in their primetime show Masterstroke, anchored by Punya Prasun Bajpai.

The Opposition was quick to capitalise on it, with Congress President Rahul Gandhi tweeting an excerpt from Bajpai’s show.

Report 2: The Flip-Flop

At around the same time, a report appeared on the online news portal MyNation that showed the woman claiming that her statement to PM Modi was accurate and that it was about moving from cultivating paddy to processing fruit pulp.

The counter-story by MyNation was promptly tweeted out by BJP leaders and Union Ministers, including Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and I&B Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore. The ministers used the same hashtag #UnfortunateJournalism in an evident dig at ABP News.

Rathore went so far as to say, “Some media houses have unapologetically aligned themselves to the agenda of deriding PM @narendramodi’s efforts by all means. Despicable!”

Report 3: ABP Explains

ABP returned to Chandramani Kaushik’s village and spoke to her again. In her interaction with the PM, Kaushik had claimed that after she began to process the pulp of custard apples instead of selling them – thanks to the government’s Krishi Atma Pariyojna – her income increased from around 50-60 rupees to 700 rupees.

But when ABP News spoke to her, she explained that the 700 rupees was actually the cumulative earnings of a group of 12 women, of which she was a member.

Therefore, ABP News did the math for its viewers – 700 rupees divided by 12 people would mean less than 59 rupees per person.

The story by ABP News proceeded to ask, “In what way is this amount double of what she was earning earlier?”

Was ‘No Signal’ the Clearest Signal?

This was the time when a bizarre occurence was noted by viewers of ABP news.

Viewers began to complain that ABP News would mysteriously stop working on their TV sets between 9 pm and 10 pm, the timing of Bajpai’s show Masterstroke. Several viewers uploaded videos showing their screens repeatedly losing signal during Bajpai’s show. Funnily enough, this problem did not seem to occur at other times in the day.

No Questions, Please?

Online portal The Wire reported “senior news anchor Abhisar Sharma has been pulled off air for 15 days after he reportedly questioned instructions from management that there be no criticism of Modi on his programmes,” citing ABP sources.

Sharma had reportedly juxtaposed a claim by PM Modi – made in a recent speech in Lucknow – that the law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh had improved, while speaking on two brutal murders that took place in the state the next day.

Atideb Sarkar, CEO of ABP News Network, had allegedly insisted that the show be taken off air right then. But Managing Editor Khandekar allegedly insisted that it could not be done as it was only five minutes into the bulletin. Later, the anchor was purportedly instructed not to criticise Modi again.

The Wire reported that instructions were also allegedly given to the channel’s executive producers that there will henceforth be no content critical of the Modi government.

Insider’s Account: “Black Day for ABP News”

The Quint spoke to a well-placed source at ABP News about the current situation within the organisation.

ABP News is part of the same media house that publishes The Telegraph newspaper, headquartered out of Kolkata – a newspaper whose headlines and front pages have drawn attention for being sharply critical of the Modi regime. Then how is it that the same group is seemingly caving to “pressure from the government”? Is it because Kolkata is relatively shielded from this?

ABP source: Look, there’s another thing. It is no secret that the reach of Hindi news organisations is far, far greater than that of an English newspaper. So you are allowed to write contrarian headlines and pieces in an English newspaper, but if a popular Hindi channel starts showing the truth on the ground for what it is, the government is really upset.

How exactly was this pressure applied?

ABP source: Sponsors were pulling out, and not just government sponsors. There are private companies that stopped advertising on ABP. If multiple sponsors begin pulling out, the financial losses escalate. How long can a channel relent?

We do not have an agenda against the government, we are merely reporting facts. Hum sarkar ko safaai kyun de? Aap apna kaam karo, aur humein apna kaam karne do. Safai dene ka sawaal kaha se uthta hai? (Why should we give a justification to the government? The government should stick to doing its job, and let us do ours. Where does the question, of explaining ourselves till the government is pleased, arise from?)

What sense prevails among your colleagues and the newsroom?

ABP source: Journalists are being punished for merely doing their job. Undoubtedly, this is a black day for ABP News. If the press is not allowed to do its job and is pressurised to such an extent, what else can you call it?

Twitter Backlash

The sudden resignations of Managing Editor Milind Khandekar and primetime anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai have resulted in a barrage of criticism on social media, with Opposition parties and veteran journalists raising questions about the alleged political interference in these developments at ABP.

The Quint has reached out to ABP News for their response to the controversy. This story will be updated if and when we receive a response.

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