Government raids on India media tycoon raises press freedom fears

NEW DELHI (ANN News Desk) - India's top investigative agency raids the homes and offices of NDTV founders Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika Roy for a seven-year-old bank loan default case.

India's top investigating agency raided the offices and residences of the founders of NDTV, the country's oldest English-language news channel on June 5, firing up a debate on the muzzling of free speech in India which slipped three places in this year's World Press Freedom Index.

The Narendra Modi government was quick to justify the Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) multiple raids on the founders - distinguished journalist Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika Roy – saying there was no political interference and that “the law was taking its course”.

However, the Opposition political parties and much of the media world saw the move as an assault on the freedom of speech. NDTV, seen as a liberal voice in India's fast changing media landscape which critics accuse of becoming increasingly nationalistic and jingoistic, called the government action a "witch-hunt". It said in a statement that “it is clearly the independence and fearlessness of NDTV's team that the ruling party's politicians cannot stomach and the CBI raid is merely another attempt at silencing the media”.

The Case

The CBI has registered a criminal case against the founders for causing an alleged loss of 480 million rupees or US$7.45 million to a private bank.

India's Information and Broadcasting Minister M Venkaiah Naidu insisted this was no political vendetta. However, most representatives of the media saw it as a “black day”, comparing it to the imposition of Emergency and media censorship in 1975 when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister.

For most it was difficult to fathom why a private bank would raise a loan default issue that was settled at least six years ago.

Rajdeep Sardesai, one of India's most credible anchors who started his career with NDTV, tweeted, “Raid on @PrannoyRoyNDTV for a 2010 case in 2017?”

Many suspect the raid was triggered in part by the channel's senior editor, Nidhi Razdan, asking a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson on live TV to leave her show last week.

The Motive

Aditya Sinha, former editor-in-chief of The New Indian Express and of Daily News and Analysis, and author of several books, put the raid in perspective for Asia News Network.

"Some justify the raids saying that NDTV ought not to be treated differently from any private business that has broken rules. This is disingenuous. NDTV is accused of causing loss to a private bank, not of stealing from it. Many top industrialists have broken bigger laws for bigger sums, including industrialists said to be close to the highest levels of government,” Sinha said.

“One BJP Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) member, Subhash Chandra, who runs the biggest media empire, is actually charged with extortion. NDTV has long been the victim of innuendoes and lies about financial impropriety, mostly spread by chartered accountant S Gurumurthy ever since it took a critical stand against the Gujarat government for its inaction, if not acquiescence, in the 2002 riots.”

Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister, was Gujarat's chief minister when sectarian riots broke out in 2002. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and rights activists accused Modi of doing little to stop the violence.

Sinha pointed out that the loss allegedly caused to the bank by NDTV is paltry compared to defaults by major industrialists.

“The charge of not informing SEBI (the regulator for the securities market in India) and other regulators about the loans, etc, could easily have been handled by a show-cause notice. This underlines the suspicion that the government targeted the media house for its dissenting stance. It also echoes the manner in which the previous National Democratic Alliance government targeted Outlook magazine when it probed allegations of corruption against persons close to then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee."

Targeting Media

Anupam Pandey, a Delhi-based journalist, was detained by police in the western Indian state of Rajasthan last week along with two other journalists.

Pandey was investigating a story on how Hindu hardline groups Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal are taining youngsters aged between 15 and 20 to use firearms.

“It's quite clear that any voice which does not match with the ideology of the current dispensation will be made to keep shut...The police threatened to file a First Information Report and put us behind bars as if we were dreaded criminals,” Pandey told Asia News Network.
India slipped three places to 136th in this year's World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, highlighting concerns that Hindu nationalists were "trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought".

John Dayal, a prominent writer and activist, said the timing of the raids on NDTV makes it clear they were all about the journalism, and not the business of NDTV and that is what makes it terrible.

“Raids on media houses for their business or associated businesses have happened but the fact is that NDTV has, in the last four years, consistently been, at worst, neutral and, at best, extremely critical of the government and its failures and has clearly become the only (independent) voice when other media houses are falling in line one by one,” he said.

“This current dispensation of Modi, it can talk with Pakistan and with China but it cannot stand critics because the man who leads us has built himself into a demi-god and now criticism of Modi amounts to blasphemy, which is South Asia is a big crime,” Dayal said.

The benefit of doubt

Kanishka Gupta, India's top literary agent, doesn't know which side to believe – the government or NDTV.

“Although journalists and media watchers are crying foul, it appears that the raids were conducted in response to a First Information Report. All I can say is that this issue is a long-running one and hasn't surfaced overnight. There is a pervasive sense of persecution amongst the media, and while it is justified to a great extent, I wonder if at times it clouds logic and objectivity,” said Gupta.

Several others supported the raid.

“You don't get to play martyr when you have blood on your own hands. When you benefit from political protection and access journalism purely derived from privilege, it is bound to bite you in the ass one day. Press freedom is for journalists, not for media business barons who are selective about their free press battles,” posted a journalist on Facebook.

The ruling BJP's politicians defended the government's move, saying it had not distinguished between members of the media, politicians and doctors – “if you have broken the law, then you have broken the law”.

India's main Opposition party, the Congress, was vehement in its criticism.

"It is a strong attack on the freedom of the press and the Congress party strongly condemns it. We warn the Central government that it should not try to hound and threaten the media," senior Congress spokesperson Ajay Maken said.

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