Police ask Zee boss to join ‘extortion’ probe, get 2-day custody of executives

Zee News editor and business head Sudhir Chaudhary and Zee Business editor and business head Sameer Ahluwalia were Wednesday remanded in police custody for two days by a local court after the Crime Branch of Delhi Police said it wanted to question them about the alleged "larger conspiracy" in the extortion case involving Congress MP Naveen Jindal.

Police sources said the Crime Branch had also sent a notice three days ago to Zee group chairman Subhash Chandra, asking him to join investigations after an analysis of phone call records allegedly showed that the Zee executives had spoken to Chandra immediately after their first meeting with Jindal in connection with the alleged extortion bid.

Police sources said the executives and Chandra spoke for 286 seconds, which led them to request Chandra to join the investigation. Chandra, they said, responded on Tuesday, requesting that he be excused for the moment as he was busy. He is believed to have said he would join investigations after December 2. The Crime Branch is preparing a second notice that would be sent to Chandra soon, the sources said.

The two editors were arrested Tuesday following a complaint by Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) on October 2, alleging that they had demanded Rs 100 crore in committed advertising in return for dropping an investigation launched by their two channels on the alleged undue benefits to Jindal in the allotment of coal blocks by the UPA government.

JSPL had given police video and audio recordings of at least three meetings between its officials and Chaudhary and Ahluwalia on September 13, 17 and 19 at Delhi's Hyatt Regency hotel. The Rs 100 crore demand was made during these meetings, JSPL alleged.

Zee has denied the allegations and said the arrests are an attempt to gag the media on the basis of a fraudulent and contrived complaint.

Arguing in the court of metropolitan magistrate Gomati Manocha, Rebecca John, the lawyer for the editors, said the prosecution case "bordered on the realm of fantasy". Countering the charges filed, John said the offence of extortion could not be made out since there was no transfer of funds and only a mere allegation of a "draft advertising agreement".

"We had aired the true picture of the CAG report when the report of the constitutional body was tabled in Parliament" John said.

Public prosecutor Rajiv Mohan alleged that the channel had shown a "changed interpretation" of the CAG report to portray that the Jindal group had received favours from the government. Police sources said that although the two editors were allegedly instrumental in the entire conspiracy, they need to be questioned to ascertain if any others are involved, including Chandra and his son Punit Goenka who are named in the FIR filed by JSPL.

The two editors were booked under sections 384 (extortion), 420 (cheating), 120 B (criminal conspiracy) and 511 (punishment for attempting to commit offences punishable with imprisonment for life or other imprisonment) of the IPC. But the court dropped section 420 after John argued that there could be no cheating since there was no deception by Zee and there had been meetings and discussion about a "mutual agreement between the two corporate houses".

The court, however, accepted the prosecution plea that further investigation was required to "establish the role of other officials and to find out as to who all played a role in the drafting etc of the said draft agreement". Noting that the investigation was at a preliminary stage and that the accused have been arrested only after the authenticity of the audio-visual recordings were verified by the Central Forensic Sciences Lab, the court allowed the crime branch application for custody.

Meanwhile, police sources said they had questioned the two editors about why they are alleged to have raised the demand for advertising to Rs 100 crore from Rs 25 crore, why they allegedly called Chandra immediately after their first meeting with JSPL officials and why they did not report the alleged bribe offer from JSPL to authorities.

The editors, the sources said, claimed that they were conducting a counter-sting and wanted to see how far JSPL would go. The editors are also believed to have said that they did not report the alleged bribe offer as they thought they could "handle it themselves", the sources alleged, and claimed that the two were evasive about some other aspects during questioning.

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