Citizen Jain

Print edition : June 20, 1998

Even as the E.D. continues its quest to interrogate Ashok Jain, questions about editorial manoeuvres loom over The Times of India.

THE 17-month-long probe under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) against media baron Ashok Kumar Jain being conducted by the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) appears to have reached an impasse with facts and circumstances appearing to conspire against the case reaching its logical conclusion. After remaining unavailable for interrogation by the E.D. - citing medical reasons - for five out of the six months allowed by the Supreme Court for the E.D. to complete its investigation, the chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited, publishers of The Times of India group of newspapers, returned to India on May 31. But he once again got himself admitted to the Bombay Hospital. In response to a summons issued by the E.D. for interrogation at its offices in New Delhi on June 10, Jain said that he could be interrogated, if at all, at the Bombay Hospital in the presence of doctors and nurses. The E.D. appears to have decided against doing so.

The time allowed by the Supreme Court for the conclusion of the probe when it dismissed Jain's anticipatory bail petition in January 1998 will run out on July 4. When the agency petitioned the court just before the court's vacation for an extension of time, Justice M.K. Mukherjee directed the E.D. to come back after the vacation. The court will resume only on July 13, nine days after the expiry of the period stipulated.

While FERA stipulates that show cause notices can be issued and criminal proceedings launched against an accused only after all attempts are made to obtain the person's statements, in a case like this where the accused was not available for interrogation, the E.D. can go ahead and file charges on the basis of evidence available with it. However, sources in the E.D. refused to say whether they would do so in this case.

CURIOUSLY, the Delhi zone Deputy Director of the E.D. who had been in charge of the Jain probe, Ashok Aggarwal, went on three weeks' leave a day prior to Jain's return to India. The E.D. headquarters is apparently concerned over the manner of functioning of the Delhi zone and has launched an enquiry into the manner in which a particular FERA probe (unrelated to the Ashok Jain case) was being handled by it.

Some papers relating to earlier FERA probes against Ashok Jain are apparently not available despite efforts made by the headquarters to retrieve them from the Delhi zone. These include a no-objection certificate reported to have been issued by the Directorate in 1995 to Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. for obtaining a licence to start Times Bank.

Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha announced in his Budget speech that FERA would be replaced by FEMA, the Foreign Exchange Management Act. Revenue Secretary N.K. Singh told Frontline that the draft legislation on FEMA and money laundering was ready and was being vetted by the Law Ministry. There were also news reports that once FEMA was introduced, ongoing cases of FERA investigation would be reviewed by a committee comprising, among others, the Revenue Secretary and the Enforcement Director. The report said that only adjudication will be launched in cases where criminal prosecution had not yet been launched.

AFTER the summary dismissal of H.K. Dua, Editorial Adviser of The Times of India, allegedly for failure to help Ashok Jain in the FERA investigation, the Times management is learnt to be trying to persuade top level journalists in the newspaper to sign an affidavit/letter expressing their dissatisfaction with Dua's editorial competence and integrity. Although one or two people may have signed it, others have refused to do so. When contacted by Frontline, Dileep Padgaonkar, Director (Corporate), said that he was not aware of any such move. "It is absolute rubbish as far as I am concerned," he said.

Others, however, speak of pressure being applied on them to sign. They also point out that the Times management had always dealt summary dismissals to earlier editors when they refused to toe the management's line or when it no longer had any use for them. Girilal Jain and Dileep Padgaonkar himself left unceremoniously. Girilal Jain was not even given a letter of dismissal. Arun Shourie's brief stint as Executive Editor with the newspaper ended abruptly too.

Although the transfer of some 17 senior journalists attempted last month has been put on hold, there is insecurity within the editorial team. Perceived to be particularly at risk are New Delhi Bureau Chief M.D. Nalapat and K. Subrahmanyam.

Dua's dismissal will be taken to the Press Council of India by the People's Union for Civil Liberties. Two eminent lawyers will present Dua's case to the Council.

Some journalist observers are concerned that aside from news agency stories of the statement made by the Editors' Guild on Dua's dismissal which were carried by some newspapers, the issue has not been taken up in the Indian press. There has been no editorial comment in any major publication except The Statesman.

The Editors' Guild, however, issued a strong statement on May 29 in which it expressed shock at the arbitrary dismissal of Dua. The statement, signed by Vinod Mehta, president of the Guild, said: "The removal of the Editor of a premier newspaper by an abrupt and premature termination of his contract without any explanation has grave implications for the freedom of the press which is central to the ethos of any democratic society and thus becomes a public issue." It added: "The Guild has in the past few years been dismayed by trends suggestive of managerial interference into day-to-day editorial functions. Mr. Dua's exit again brings into sharp focus the deteriorating relationship between editors and proprietors. These anxieties are heightened by reports that Mr. Dua was removed not for professional reasons, but because of his unwillingness to support the owner's collateral interests that had little to do with the conduct of the newspaper."

Prominent citizens including Y.K. Alagh, Geeta Mukherjee, Gurudas Dasgupta and Digvijay Singh (all MPs), Justice Rajinder Sachar, Rajni Kothari, Ashis Nandy, B.G. Verghese, Kuldip Nayar, M.V. Kamat, Prabhas Joshi, N.K. Trikha, N. Bhaskar Rao and Hiranmay Karlekar issued a joint statement in which they expressed disquiet over Dua's removal. "The peremptory removal of a journalist of Mr. Dua's stature is in itself disquieting. In this case, the disquiet is even greater because his removal is being seen as a consequence of his refusal to lobby for the newspaper group's chairman who is under investigation for alleged FERA violations. Such reports gain credibility in the absence of any statement or explanation by the management for its action." The statement added: "The entire range of developments raises serious questions about the role of journalists and the use of newspapers by those who run and manage them. All those interested in the freedom of the press and newspaper standards must take cognizance of this deplorable development and ensure that the vital role that newspaper and journalists play in a democracy is not perverted."

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