The resignations this week of two high-profile journalists from ABP News, a channel that had come in for criticism by senior ministers recently, have led to concerns about press freedom in India and familiar questions about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attitude to being held to scrutiny. One element of the episode that sparked many questions was the claim that Masterstroke, a primetime show being anchored by veteran journalist Punya Prasun Bajpai, was being blocked to prevent viewers from watching it, even when the show was technically on air. Did one specific show, on a channel that was otherwise available to the public, really get blocked? And if so, who was responsible?
Masterstroke had earned prominence after it reported on July 8 that a woman who spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a video interaction on June 20 had been tutored to make false claims. Bajpai resigned on August 2, a day after his colleague ABP News Managing Editor Milind Khandekar quit. Several BJP leaders said the report was false.
Soon after the episode was aired, viewers began complaining that they were having problems accessing Masterstroke, which comes on at 9 pm, even though they were able to view other ABP News programmes.
On July 17, Bajpai himself tweeted about the problem. “Until now I heard that the arm of the law is long,” he said. “Today I realised that someone one else’s hand has been able to even tamper with satellites, and that the signal disappears when Masterstroke is on air. Congratulations to these powerful arms.”
Viewers also took to Twitter in support of Bajpai, posting pictures of blank television screens during the show. This led to a response from Direct to Home service providers. Tata Sky, for instance, responded to one of the tweets by stating that the problem was at the broadcaster’s end.
Khandekar tweeted on behalf of ABP News to say the channel was investigating the source of the disruption of its primetime telecast.
Scroll.in spoke to executives and technical heads of news channels on how a television channel signal could be disrupted.
The replies were similar. The technical head of a news channel, requesting anonymity as the matter involved a competitor, said there were three possibilities for what could have happened. One, there could have been a technical problem at the channel’s end. But this seemed unlikely, given that viewers claimed that the show had been disrupted for several days. They did not seem to have had a problem accessing other ABP News shows.
Second, any satellite transmission is susceptible to disruptions, especially direct to home services that involve direct transmission to a set top box, the official said. This could be due to weather or other extraneous factors. “But the problem here is that the DTH providers have said the disruption has happened at the broadcaster’s end,” the official said. “This could mean a problem with uplinking of signal to the satellite.”
The third possibility is what is troubling those in the television industry. “This could have been the result of a rogue carrier,” the person said.
A rogue carrier is one which disrupts a legitimate signal, jamming it by transmitting another signal in the same frequency. Essentially that would mean attempting to override the ABP signal at the time Masterstroke was on with something else, in this case, simply a blank screen.
Rogue carriers have in the past been used by governments to disrupt transmission that they feel are detrimental to their cause. For example, in 2003, a major controversy broke out when the United States said that Cuba had used a rogue carrier to jam signals broadcast by Voice of America in Persian, which was aimed at a domestic audience in Iran. The United States government claimed this was the handiwork of a pact between anti-US clerics in Iran and the Cuban establishment led by Fidel Castro.
Industry insiders said there have also been instances where market competitors scramble a signal to gain competitive advantage. With the advent of digital transmissions, jamming signals using rogue carriers has become much easier than it was with analog transmissions. In 2014, for example, the DTH Operators Association of India, filed a complaint to the police as well as the government claiming direct-to-home operations were being interrupted since “some elements were disrupting their signals by illegally installing jammers”.
‘It’s that simple’
A senior TV executive with more than two decades of experience in setting up news channels said it is very easy for a rogue operator to disrupt another broadcaster’s signals. “All you need to do is fire a signal at the same frequency,” the executive said. “An engineer driving around in an OB van can do it. It’s that simple.”
TV channels hire outdoor broadcast vans and mobile uplink equipment from other companies, which widens the possible avenues for such interference. “One engineer and one OB van, that’s all you need,” the executive added. “Everyone [in the TV industry] knows this but no one does it because of ethics.”
However, the technical head of a television channel said equipment used for uplinking signals is tightly regulated in India. “You need a licence to hold these,” the official said. The same equipment used to uplink signals would be needed to jam or override another signal, which would then make it a “rogue carrier”.
The regulations would mean that it is likely that the party using uplinking to jam a signal has a legal licence for it that is now being misused. But the TV technical head added that it is extremely difficult to identify the exact source of the rogue carrier as it could emerge from anywhere in the satellite’s footprint. “Usually, this footprint is large, sometimes transcending national borders,” the technical head said.
The other TV executive said a channel he worked for faced a signal disruption for about 20 minutes more than a decade ago. “At that time when we tried to investigate the cause, the satellite company said it was very difficult to identify who had jammed our signal.” He said satellite companies were better placed to say whether technology had evolved to a point where rogue operators could now be identified.
The executive added that there was another potential cause: He said it was possible for the signal to be disrupted from within the organisation. “An engineer sitting in the uplink room pulls out the cable and boom, your channel goes dead. It can be done with very few people knowing it.”
But an ABP insider ruled out internal sabotage. He said the channel had investigated the disruption and found the source was external, not internal.
‘Teach a lesson’
ABP News uses the services of Asiasat, an international satellite company that provides such services to major media companies like Fox Network. Scroll.in sent a questionnaire to Asiasat in an attempt to understand how the disruptions could have taken place and if the channel had lodged an official complaint about it. This story will be updated once Asiasat replies. Questions were also mailed to ABP News Network Chief Executive Officer Atideb Sarkar, who is yet to reply.
There are other means that governments have used previously to block signals to disrupt information flow. For example, in Tamil Nadu last year, the channel Puthiya Thalamurai reportedly faced a blackout in 15 districts on the Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corporation network, a government-owned enterprise. This happened when the channel broadcast an opinion poll that was unfavourable to the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
A Tamil television channel head said that all sorts of strategies are used to “teach channels a lesson”.
“Sometimes, the channel will be moved to a different number [on the listings available to subscribers] and be placed in an irrelevant category,” the official said. If this happened, viewers would most likely move on to other channels than looking for a specific one, hurting the channel’s ratings.
The matter was raised in the Lok Sabha on Friday, as Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge claimed that a one senior Member of Parliament of the Rajya Sabha had in the Central Hall challenged the media, saying if it don’t cover the ruling party’s point of view, it would shut down the channel. “And they have gone ahead and done this,” he said. Kharge is believed to have been referring to reports that BJP President Amit Shah, a Rajya Sabha MP, had told journalists in Parliament that he intended to teach ABP News a lesson.
In response, Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting (Independent Charge) Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said that the Opposition was prone to blaming the government for everything. “The channel you are talking about, first it ran a false story,” the minister said. “But the government did not send it a show-cause notice. This channel runs on Free Dish and gets its biggest TRPs on Free Dish.” DD Free Dish is the government-owned Doordarshan’s direct-to-home service.
“If the government had to something about this, they would have done it through Free Dish,” Rathore said. “Government has nothing to do with this. The channel you are talking about, its TRPs are falling because people don’t want to watch it anymore. And now you are putting the blame for this on the government.”