Four days after it aired a heavily edited audio clip of a sex chat that forced Kerala Transport Minister AK Saseendran to quit the cabinet, Mangalam Television said on Thursday that it made a mistake and offered him an unconditional apology.

The television channel, which launched on Sunday, broadcast the audio clip in its very first news bulletin. A few hours later, the minister announced his resignation, and the channel announced that more exposés would follow.

A barrage of criticism followed, with many accusing the channel of entrapping the minister. Mangalam Television held its ground, insisting that the audio clip had been sourced from a housewife from whom the minister had sought sexual favours.

However, the channel did an unexpected U-turn on Thursday night when its Chief Executive Officer R Ajith Kumar appeared on the prime time news bulletin to tender an unconditional apology.

“Mangalam Television erred in deciding to air the audio clip,” he said. “We apologise for the mistake.”

Reading from a prepared statement, he added: “The audio was recorded during a sting operation conducted with the help of woman journalist in our organisation.”

Questions raised

Kumar had told on Monday that his channel got the tape from a housewife and a team of editors had verified the voice of the minister before deciding to telecast it.

He had said that Mangalam Television would provide all details to the enquiry panel, set up by the government.

However, questions were raised about the authenticity of the clip and the channel’s decision to air only the parts where a man is talking, without giving a reason why the woman’s voice had been edited out.

The channel also failed to specify whether the conversation was consensual or if there was any coercion involved.

Kumar’s apology was telecast shortly after the government announced on Thursday that a Crime Branch team would investigate the case. On Friday, the Crime Branch registered an FIR against Kumar and nine others on Friday under sections of India Penal Code and IT Act, based on two complaints.

National Youth Congress, the youth wing of the Nationalist Congress Party, State President Mujeeb Rahman had sought action against the channel for tapping Saseendran’s phone and telecasting obscene audio.

A woman from Malappuram district filed a complaint against Mangalam Television for misusing her photograph.

The police investigation would look into the authenticity of the tape. It said it would even ask the television channel to submit all the electronic documents, including the audio tapes.

Judicial inquiry

When the government on Wednesday appointed a retired judge, PS Antony, to head a judicial commission to inquire the incident, Kumar welcomed the decision.

Kumar’s apology aims to contain the raging controversy. For the past week, journalists and political commentators have been criticising the television channel for sensationalising and misrepresenting the story.

On Wednesday, several personalities from the culture world said the controversy should not be allowed to die down following the resignation of the minister or the government’s decision to set up of an inquiry panel. “It raises questions on media ethics and personal freedom,” read the statement signed by among others by writers K Sachidanandan, NS Madhavan and Paul Zachariah. “We believe that the by airing the audio clip, the channel had questioned the conscience of the Kerala society.”

Kumar addressed their concerns in his apology. “Many of them are like teachers to us,” he said. “We fully accept their criticism.”

On Friday, a collective of women journalists called the Network of Women in Media marched to the Mangalam Television office to condemn what they claimed was Kumar’s attempt to put all the blame on the woman journalist for the sting operation. “Mr Ajith Kumar, you won’t be able to set up a media kingdom by sacrificing an inexperienced journalist,” wrote journalist KK Shahina on her Facebook page.

The journalists are also organising an online campaign against the television channel around the theme “Proud to be a Journalist”.

Chandy to replace Saseendran

Though the Managalam Television apologised for the sting, Saseendran may have to wait to return to his cabinet position.

On Friday, the Left Democratic Front decided not to re-induct him into the cabinet as the judicial inquiry against him would begin soon. All the leaders of the coalition unanimously suggested to keep Saseendran away from the cabinet until the investigation gets over.

The meeting decided to appoint Kuttanad MLA and Kuwait-based businessman Thomas Chandy as the transport minister. He will take oath of office on Saturday.