Media

Gagging the media

Print edition : July 07, 2017

NDTV founder Prannoy Roy during a protest meeting in New Delhi on June 9, along with (from left) Arun Shourie, Fali S. Nariman, H.K. Dua and S. Nihal Singh. Photo: PTI

The CBI raids on the promoters of NDTV are yet another indication that the government of the day is intolerant of media dissent and is quite amenable to using the law selectively to silence it.

ON June 9, in a show of solidarity, mediapersons converged in the capital to speak out against what they felt was an attack on the freedom of the press. The immediate context for the meeting was the raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the properties and homes of the owners of NDTV and the registration of a first information report (FIR) on June 2 based on a complaint (dated April 28) by a former employee of the media organisation. The FIR alleged criminal conspiracy, cheating and misconduct by NDTV’s founder-owners and some unknown officials of ICICI Bank. The allegations pertained to transactions that had taken place in 2008-09 and non-repayment of a loan from a private bank. The CBI later clarified that the case related not to non-repayment or default of a loan but to the “wrongful gain of Rs.48 crore” to the promoters, Prannoy Roy, Radhika Roy, and RRPR Holdings Pvt. Ltd, and a corresponding loss to ICICI Bank “arising from their collusion and criminal conspiracy”. It urged the media to telecast and publish the full text of the clarification which it released on June 6. It seemed that the government was keen to correct the perception that it had not engaged in any wrongdoing and had been impartial in its inquiry.

Senior journalists and former editors, including some present and past Members of Parliament, spoke out against the raids and condemned the attack on the freedom of the press. Journalists such as H.K. Dua, Arun Shourie, S. Nihal Singh, Kuldip Nayar and T.N. Ninan spoke on the dangers of a compliant media and a totalitarian government. It was a bygone era redux for some of them who had fought through the draconian clampdowns on the press during the years of the Emergency and also resisted the Defamation Bill introduced by the Rajiv Gandhi regime. They also underscored the need to defend the idea of a democratic and secular India.

The Central government did not agree that the raids were an attack on freedom of speech or an attack on the freedom of the press. The CBI defended its action in a detailed statement issued to the media, stating that it was not an attack on the freedom of the press as the raids were not conducted in any registered office of the media house, its studio, newsroom or premises connected with media operations but in the offices and premises of the promoters. The distinction, if any, was nebulous. And in a further clarification, the investigating agency said that it “fully respected the freedom of the press” and was “committed to the free functioning of news operations”.

Somewhat defensively, the country’s premier investigating agency explained in its statement that it was not a case of non-repayment of a loan but one where the bank concerned took as collateral the entire shareholding of the promoters in NDTV and accepted prepayment of the loan at a reduced interest rate, from 19 per cent a year to 9 per cent, thereby causing a loss of Rs.48 crore to the bank and a wrongful gain to the promoters. The CBI statement spoke of “unknown officials” of the bank who were supposed to have entered into collusion with the NDTV promoters. Quoting a Supreme Court judgment, the CBI also said that it was well within its jurisdiction to investigate cases of private banks.

It was not clear whether the CBI clarification on its perspective of media freedom was given owing to the uncomfortable glare it found itself in, but it was evident that the government and its agencies felt compelled to reassure the media at large that there was no witch-hunt. After all, senior journalists, leading editors, academics and legal luminaries like Fali S. Nariman had criticised the government for the raids. At the meeting called by media organisations, the senior advocate said that he had been invited at the behest of Prannoy Roy. Nariman called the raids an “unjustified attack on press and media freedom”.

He said that in furtherance of press freedom under Article 19 (1) (a), the CBI should have, as a matter of constitutional requirement, first inquired from the owners or promoters what they had to say in the matter before conducting a raid. He also referred to the famous quote of the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, underscoring the prime sentiment of the quote which was the need to “speak up”.

Union Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu, who is also in charge of the Urban Development Ministry, denied that the raids symbolised an attack on the freedom of the media. Akin to the argument given by the CBI, especially the part relating to the “freedom of the press”, he told news agencies that there were no raids on the offices of the channel as the CBI had not entered the premises of its newsroom or TV studio, the searches were carried out through a court warrant, the law was taking its own course, there was no witch-hunt, and the Roys should comply with the due process of law.

The difference, if any, seemed to be one of delicate semantics. It is difficult to understand how the newsroom could be dissociated with the principal promoters and founders of the channel. It is inconceivable that a raid on the private home of the owner-promoter can be dissociated from and unaffected by what goes on in the newsroom owned by the owner-promoter.

It is another matter that according to the World Press Freedom Index 2017, compiled by the Reporters Sans Frontieres and which was released recently, India slipped by two points to be ranked 136 among 180 countries.

In its first statement on June 5, the channel said: “This morning, the CBI stepped up the concerted harassment of NDTV and its promoters based on the same old endless false accusations. NDTV and its promoters will fight tirelessly against this witch-hunt by multiple agencies. We will not succumb to these attempts to blatantly undermine democracy and free speech in India. We have one message to those who are trying to destroy the institutions of India and everything it stands for: we will fight for our country and overcome these forces.”

NDTV claimed that the loan had been repaid and furnished proof of its claim on its website. It also claimed that it was a victim of a witch-hunt. In an updated statement, it said that the raids were a “political attack on the freedom of the media”, indicating that these were no ordinary raids and that there was a clear political intent behind it. Expressing surprise that the CBI had registered an FIR without even conducting a preliminary inquiry, it said: “NDTV and its promoters have never defaulted on any loan to ICICI or any other bank. We adhere to the highest levels of integrity and independence. 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. No matter how much the politicians attack us—We will not give up the fight for freedom and the independence of media in India.”

The complainant, according to the NDTV statement, was a disgruntled former consultant and the FIR was based on a “shoddy complaint”. It also said that the complainant himself had not acquired a single order from any court. According to the CBI, the complainant was a former NDTV consultant and director of Quantum Services Private Limited who had filed complaints with the Enforcement Directorate and the Directorate General of Income Tax alleging that there was transfer of ownership and collusion of income tax officials and that the bank itself was involved in a conspiracy to conceal the true acquirer of NDTV.

At the meeting organised by journalist organisations, Prannoy Roy said that the charges were flimsy and concocted. “They are telling us: we will fix you even if you are innocent,” he said. He added that the principal complainant was a tool being exploited (by the government) and that the complainant’s mother herself was not supportive of his actions as in her opinion the Roys were “good people”.

Prannoy Roy said that his criticism was not against the CBI but against the “politicians who wanted to manipulate, eviscerate and disembowel our institutions”. He also said he was open to any inquiry but it should be time-bound and transparent. He claimed that he and his wife had not “bribed one person, nor touched one cent of black money” all their lives. All their houses, he said, were bought with “white” money.

He denied the charges of money laundering involving GE and NBC made by the Income Tax Department in Delhi. The department alleged that NBC’s investment of $150 million in an entertainment wing of NDTV in 2008 was a sham transaction and that NDTV had sent the money through hawala and that the money was round-tripped to NDTV. The government lawyers had sought 21 adjournments at the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, with the result that the basic case was not being heard. In a shocking disclosure, he also said that NDTV had been accused of running a prostitution racket.

In December 2016, responding to charges on a private website where it was alleged that NDTV’s promoters had allegedly floated shell companies to evade tax, the media house responded thus: “Not one rupee has ever been siphoned from NDTV by anyone or its promoters, as you allege. Rigorous and regular audits conducted by top global firms establish this, the most recent of which were carried out every year and are published and circulated widely. In addition, NDTV has conducted forensic audits of the highest standards. These audits are part of our commitment to exemplary corporate governance, but of course their findings contradict your wild and groundless accusations. Too bad.” The charges of tax evasion were raised by a journalist who was also a co-convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.

The latest raids by the CBI have raised several questions other than the timing of the action. The alleged transactions took place some eight years ago, but the bank has not filed a single complaint. The propriety of the CBI in entertaining a complaint by a third party is difficult to digest. On June 1, a day before the CBI registered its FIR, an anchor of the television channel and the channel were accused by a BJP spokesperson of having an “agenda” while conducting a discussion on the Centre’s notification banning the sale of cattle for slaughter at village markets. The anchor asked the BJP spokesperson to leave the show.

In November 2016, NDTV India, the channel’s Hindi counterpart, was forced to undertake a 24-hour blackout by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry following allegations of having disclosed sensitive information during the anti-terrorist operations at Pathankot. Not many in the media believed that this was the case, although the channel had to abide by the recommendation of an inter-ministerial committee. This was the first instance of invoking the amended programme code of the Cable Television Network Rules that prohibited live coverage of anti-terrorist operations. The new clause, Rule 6(1)(p), which came into effect in March 2015, says: “No programme should be carried… (which) contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate government, till such operation concludes.”

The issue undoubtedly goes beyond NDTV or any media house. The June 9 meeting was not just about any single media house; it was also not about the law being allowed to take its own course, a fact that everyone agreed was indisputable and self-evident. It was the expression of an angst that was all-pervasive for many reasons.

The issue at hand is also the growing perception that the government of the day seems to be intolerant of media dissent and is quite amenable to using the law selectively to silence it.

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