It is a month now since ABN Network, India’s only satellite channel in Nepali language, went off air. On July 22, West Bengal police raided and sealed its corporate office and recording studio in Siliguri. The next day, Rachna Bhagat, the district magistrate of Jalpaiguri, issued an order restraining the channel from broadcasting news programmes related to Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts until August 7. The order was extended indefinitely on August 8.

ABN Network executives have called the police raids and the magistrate’s orders an attack on the freedom of the press.

The police action followed two complaints, both by government officials, alleging that the channel was spreading “hatred between communities” and causing “social disharmony” by broadcasting, and sharing on Facebook, a khukuri-rally staged by pro-Gorkhaland supporters in Siliguri on July 21. The khukuri, which is a traditional Nepali knife, is one of the symbols used by protestors who have been demanding a separate state for Nepali-speaking Indians, or Gorkhas, since early June.

Mahendra Kumar Thapa, the news head of ABN Network, defended the channel’s coverage of the July 21 rally. “As journalists, we just did a news piece on the incident without editorialising it or giving any analysis,” he said. “We are extremely non-partisan in our coverage and have been covering the Gorkhaland agitation without any bias whatsoever.”

“It is surprising that we have been booked for just reporting facts,” he added. “Other news channels also reported on the incident. Why were we singled out?”

More than the coverage itself, both the complaints focussed more on comments posted by users in response to the news report shared on the channel’s Facebook page. The comments were included in the first information reports.

Tulsi Raman, the HR manager of the channel, however, pointed out the Facebook comments were posted by “third-party users” over whom the channel had no control. The channel subsequently deleted the comments, he added.

Justifying the orders, Bhagat said that since Jalpaiguri districts shares borders with the Darjeeling hills, “we are taking care that no adverse incident happens. We just want to avoid the spread of any more unrest.”

Since early June, protests have been underway in the hills in support of the formation of Gorkhaland by carving out Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts from West Bengal. So far, 10 people have been killed in separate incidents across the hills.

An unexpected raid

Launched in October 2016, the All Bharatiya Nepali Network, known as ABN Network, caters largely to the 2.9-million strong Nepali-speaking population in India, largely concentrated in Sikkim, Darjeeling and the Northeast. The channel is owned by Bijay Chamling, an entrepreneur who is the son of Sikkim’s chief minister Pawan Chamling.

ABN Network calls itself an “infotainment” channel, featuring both current affairs and cultural programmes. It telecasts six news bulletins a day, as well as non-news programmes – documentaries, chat shows, etc – largely on Nepali music and literature. Headquartered in Delhi, where the programmes are uplinked for transmission, it has a registered office in Gangtok, a marketing office in Guwahati and a corporate office in Siliguri, apart from bureaus in all the places. The channel has more than 150 employees, 68 in Siliguri alone. Around 80 employees work in the news section.

The ABN Network staff were winding up the day’s work at their Siliguri corporate office on the night of July 22 when their premises were suddenly raided by the police. The office staff said the police personnel from Bhaktinagar police station offered little explanation for the raids. They prepared a seizure list of things at the office at that time and left after downing the shutters and sealing the locks.

“We tried to reason with them, asked about their concerns,” said Raman, who along with the CEO Shwapnanill Chatterjee, was summoned to the police station for questioning under section 41 (A) of Code of Criminal Procedure. “They explained nothing to us. All they said was that there was a complaint against us and that they had orders from the top to seal off the place and that we could go to the court if we wanted to challenge it.”

It was only the next day that the channel received a formal notice from the district magistrate, restraining the transmission of news with effect from July 23. With the office sealed off by the police, no one has been able to enter it since then.

ABN Network staff arrived on the morning of June 23 to find their office sealed. Photo credit: ABN Network

While ABN has other offices, news bulletins are entirely produced in Siliguri. Closing down this office has brought all work to a grinding halt even though the administration’s ban order does not include non-news programmes or news from outside the region. “Currently, Siliguri is only where we have lease line connectivity, linking us with Delhi from where the transmission is done,” a company official said. He said the company is working on upgrading infrastructure at their other offices.

Justifying the action against the channel, Jalpaiguri police superintendent Abitabha Maiti said, “Whenever a case is registered, the offices have to be closed for the sake of investigation.”

The allegations against the channel

Two complaints were filed against the channel on July 22. One was filed by the Darjeeling district information and culture officer Jagadish Roy at Bhaktinagar police station and the other was a suo-moto case filed by Biswasroy Sarkar, the inspector heading the Kotwali police station.

“After perusing the Facebook page of the said media/news company, it came to light that the news and stories of the said media/news company are highly objectionable,” Sarkar said in his written complaint.

“The comments promote violence and enmity between races,” wrote Roy, who accused the channel’s news anchor of “glorifying” the khukuri rally and unlawful activities, and “showing bias” against the state government with an intent to “promote violence and enmity”.

On July 23, Bhagat issued the first order restraining transmission, citing Section 19 of Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, which gives power to authorised officers to prohibit transmission in public interest, and section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which prohibits an assembly of more than four people. Citing Sarkar’s complaint and a report by Jalpaiguri police superintendent, she wrote in her order that “no programme should be carried in the cable service [sic] which is likely to encourage or incite violence.” She said the police superintendent’s report on ABN Network projects a threat to the harmony and integrity of the local communities, and posting of such news on social media is “open incitement of sentiments of people belonging to different communities”.

On August 8, she issued a second notification in which the ban was extended “until further order”. This was done, she said, keeping in mind elections to the Dhupguri municipality which took place on August 13 and the results declared on August 17.

There is still no clarity on when the West Bengal state authorities will lift the ban on the fledgling channel. Bhagat told that she is busy with the relief work in flood-hit areas of the district. “Currently, I have been busy with relief measures and I haven’t had the time [to review the ban],” she said. Besides, she added, she is also awaiting a report from the police superintendent on the law and order situation in the district on which will depend her decision whether or not to revoke the ban.

The police superintendent Abitabha Maiti, however, said such a report is not likely anytime soon. “The investigation [into the ABN network case] is going on,” he said. “The embargo on the television channel should stay until the investigation is over. It is also in the interest of the law and order situation.”

An attack on language and culture

The ban on the channel came soon after internet services were suspended in the hills on June 19.

“Closing down a channel for over a month and counting, just on the suspicion that we may cause law and order problem, which law justifies it?” asked a senior company official, not wanting to be identified. “Even if we had committed an offence by broadcasting the said rally, is this long period of ban justified as punishment?”

When asked about the provisions of the law that support such a ban, police superintendent Maiti said he could not respond off-hand and declined further comment.

Both Raman and Thapa said the clampdown was not just an attack on the freedom of the press but also on Nepali language and culture. “It seems they have singled us out only because we are a Nepali channel,” said Raman. “Our channel provides an alternative voice to the people of the hills, giving them an insider’s perspective. And it is not just about news, it is about language and culture too.”

The company official said the lack of support from the rest of the broadcast media was hurtful. “We have been off-air for a month, and no one in Delhi, or anywhere in India, who runs a TV channel even raised a voice for us.”

Some in the channel, however, said instead of a confrontation with the government at this stage, they were looking forward to an amicable solution. “We are cooperating with the administration and are taking their concerns seriously since the prevailing situation in the region is sensitive,” Chatterjee said. “We are trying to make them understand that we are a neutral channel with no agenda to peddle. We are still waiting and watching, and hoping to be back on air soon.”