On Monday, 5 June, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducted raids in four locations in Delhi and Dehradun in relation to a ten-year-old case between ICICI Bank and media company NDTV.
Among the locations raided was the residence of Prannoy Roy, the co-founder of NDTV.
The CBI acted on an First Information Report (FIR) filed last week (June 2, 2017) following a letter from the Enforcement Directorate (ED) last year alleging irregularities in loan transactions between ICICI and NDTV, both private companies. The CBI raids happened only four days after a BJP spokesperson, Sambit Patra, was asked to leave an NDTV debate on June 1, 2017 after he accused the channel of pursuing an “agenda”.
NDTV labelled the raids as a “blatant political attack on the freedom of the press” and declared that the loan had been repaid over seven years ago, uploading evidence for the same on their site.
Meanwhile, other media organisations and Opposition politicians came to NDTV’s defence, labelling the attack as political vendetta and said the move was an attempt to “muzzle” NDTV. However, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Venkaiah Naidu, has denied involvement in the investigation. He said that “this government doesn’t believe in interfering”.
The case essentially involves ICICI Bank, NDTV, and a private company linked to NDTV – RRPR Holding Private Ltd. – among others.
In 2008, ICICI gave NDTV a Rs 366 crore on personal guarantees of the Roys. A year later, ICICI settled for a foreclosure of the loan. While NDTV repaid the loan amount, the bank consented to a part-waiver of interest that allegedly resulted in a loss of Rs 48 crore for the bank.
“NDTV and ICICI entered into a criminal conspiracy to transfer ownership of a news company (NDTV) to a shell company, against banking rules, SEBI Act,” the CBI said in its FIR.
The complaint was lodged by Sanjay Dutt, director of Quantum Services Private Limited and former employee of NDTV, who also accuses the Roys and RRPR of “committing fraud” and “causing wilful loss” of over Rs 48 crore to ICICI Bank and the shareholders of NDTV. The bank is also accused of providing a discount on the interest payable on loan. It is alleged that NDTV laundered funds of Rs 403.85 crore to create an interest in favour of a shell company.
The move elicited sharp reactions from the media and Opposition politicians. They accused the government of using the CBI to settle scores and muzzle the media. Some even suggested that the move was reminiscent of the Emergency.
Venkaiah Naidu has denied government involvement in the investigation. He also said, “If somebody does something wrong, simply because they belong to media, you cannot expect the government to keep quiet.” The officials were doing their duty and there was no political interference in this, he said, adding that media was free and independent in the country. “The CBI might have received some information. That is why they have taken action.”
NDTV’s updated statement on the CBI raids said:
“It is shocking that the CBI conducted searches on the NDTV offices and residence of the promoters without even conducting a preliminary enquiry. This is a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press as sources confirm that under pressure, the CBI has been compelled to file an FIR based on a shoddy complaint by a disgruntled former consultant at NDTV called Sanjay Dutt, who has been making false allegations and filing cases in courts of law with these false allegations. So far, he has not obtained a single order from any of these courts.
Legal analysts are astounded that where courts have rejected giving any order in all these years, the CBI conducts raids based on what is a private complaint.
The allegation appears to be for a loan which has been repaid by Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy more than seven years ago.
Even though lakhs and crores of rupees of dues have not been paid by several industrialists and no criminal case has yet been registered against any of them by the CBI, the CBI has chosen not only to register an FIR, but also conduct a search for a loan which has been duly repaid to ICICI Bank. Moreover, ICICI is a private bank.
The allegation that no disclosure was made to SEBI and other regulatory authorities is not only incorrect and false but also does not clothe the CBI with any power to register cases and search which further amplifies the fact that the search by the CBI is only a witch-hunt against independent media.
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 Editors Guild of India released the following statement:
“The Editors Guild of India expresses its deep concern over the raids conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the offices of NDTV and its promoters today. Entry of police and other agencies into the media offices is a serious matter. NDTV, in various statements, has denied any wrong doing and termed the raids as “stepping up the concerted harassment” of the news channel and an attempt to “undermine democracy and free speech” and “silence the media.” While the Editors Guild maintains that no individual or institution is above the law, the Guild condemns any attempt to muzzle the media and calls upon the CBI to follow the due process of law and ensure there is no interference in the free functioning of news operations.”
Meanwhile, ICICI Bank has not given any official statements yet.
On 6 June, the CBI released a statement where the Bureau denied allegations of a “witch-hunt” and “a political attack on the freedom of the press”.
The Logical Indian take
The raid also happened a few months after the government threatened to shut down the channel for an entire day or allegedly divulging “strategically sensitive” details while covering the Pathankot attack (this plan was scrapped following massive outrage).
NK Singh, a former joint director of the CBI, called it unusual for the CBI to conduct a raid on a media organisation and said that that scrutinising the terms of a loan by a private bank was also unorthodox.
There is no doubt that NDTV has a history of shady business dealings – these are well documented and controversial (more here and here) and the law should take a course. But to use a case, between two private parties, that doesn’t have much validity to target an organisation only undermines the credibility of both CBI and the government. Adding to it, no court directed CBI for raids and they acted in just 3 days after the FIR was filed.
It is a matter of great concern when the most powerful domestic law enforcement agency in the country – which operates under the jurisdiction of the government – takes it on itself to settle a dispute between two private companies, one of which happens to be a media organisation. Usage of CBI as a political tool has been well documented over the years and this case also looks as one of the examples of political vendetta. Political vendetta can never be correct and shouldn’t be supported, whether you agree or disagree with the organisation being targetted as the govt. changes, the side which gets targetted also change.
World Press Freedom Day is a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free & vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 3, 2017
India’s track record on press freedom is worrying as it is. The CBI actively opposing NDTV, a channel whose stand is arguably adversarial to the current government, further taints India’s record on press freedom.
The Logical Indian community requests the CBI to clarify clearly why it is taking it upon itself to interfere in a private case between a bank and a media organisation. We also request the government to answer questions of government vendetta against NDTV and to conclusively put to rest fears of the ruling party seeking to muzzle press freedom.
After all, like Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, a free and vibrant press is vital in a democracy. Without press freedom, the fourth pillar of democracy falls – and, with it, democracy and freedom fall as well.
NOTE: The article was updated to include information about the CBI’s statement.