The Central Bureau of Investigation’s raids on 5 June on the residences and offices of Radhika and Prannoy Roy, the founders and promoters of NDTV, are troubling on many counts. For one, there are the technical flaws in the CBI’s justification for its actions. According to the agency, it was responding to a complaint regarding an alleged loss to ICICI Bank on the repayment of an old loan to the Roys. NDTV’s many regulatory and financial travails have been well documented, including in an extensive report published in this magazine in December 2015, but the foundation of the CBI complaint in this instance is conspicuously weak. The news channel swiftly published a letter from ICICI Bank, dated from 2009, which stated that the loan had been repaid in full. Even if the bank suffered a loss, as the CBI insists it did, there are questions as to why the country’s premier investigative agency should probe a credit issue between two private parties, that too with the heavy-handedness shown in this case, especially when the relevant complaint did not come from the allegedly wronged party.
Beyond this stands a larger concern, of the likely political motives that spurred the agency’s impetuous move. NDTV has been an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics and his brand of Hindu nationalism. The CBI complaint was filed on 28 April by one Sanjay Dutt, who NDTV claims is a disgruntled former consultant, and the First Information Report based on it was created on 2 June. Just the day before this, Sambit Patra, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was on the receiving end of the NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan’s on-air censure after accusing the channel of having an “agenda” on the issue of cattle slaughter. Many have read this as more than mere coincidence, and the deployment of the CBI as a calculated act of intimidation against NDTV, as well as against all media outlets that remain critical of Hindu-nationalist politics and the government’s policies.
For the BJP’s sympathisers and NDTV’s detractors, it is convenient to defend the raids as falling within the letter of CBI procedure and due legal process. But recent precedents from other countries under governments professing furious nationalism remind us that India’s proponents of democracy still have every cause to be alarmed.
In 2000, shortly after Vladimir Putin was elected as the president of Russia, government forces raided the offices of Media-Most, the parent company of NTV, then headed by the media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky. Before the presidential election, Gusinsky had declared that NTV, at the time Russia’s only independent nationwide television channel, would not support Putin’s candidacy. The formal justification for the raid and Gusinsky’s eventual arrest was a debt of $300 million to his creditors. NTV was accused of money laundering and fraud. Gusinsky later claimed that, while in prison, he was forced to sign an agreement to sell his shares in Media-Most. After he was released, ownership of NTV was passed on to Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the state-controlled natural-gas corporation Gazprom. The channel is still active, and now closely toes the Kremlin’s line.
The takeover of NTV was the first step in a strategy that, in the 17 years since, has throttled almost all independent media in Putin’s Russia. Jill Dougherty, a former Moscow bureau chief for CNN, described it in a 2015 article:
Pass laws that constrict the space available for independent media. Set legal traps, citing anti-terrorist legislation. Send the tax police to carry out endless inspections of a recalcitrant broadcaster or their business associates, denying that political views have anything to do with the investigation. Don’t kill them, just maim them. Try to squeeze them into irrelevance.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has followed a similar recipe. Over his 14 years in power, numerous independent media organisations have either been shut down or coercively passed into pro-Erdogan hands. In one case, in 2007, government authorities seized the independent daily Sabah, citing an omission in the documents for a previous change of ownership several years ago. The paper was then sold to a consortium led by Erdogan’s son-in-law. Today, it is an unofficial government mouthpiece.
An even more egregious example is the campaign by Turkish authorities against the Dogan Media Group, the country’s largest media organisation. The group’s founder, the tycoon Aydin Dogan, is a stalwart of Turkey’s secular establishment, and has long had a strained relationship with Erdogan and his conservative Islamic supporters. In 2009, the group was slapped with a tax penalty of $3.2 billion related to a transfer of assets between two of its companies. In subsequent years, several parts of its business were taken from it, only to end up in the control of Erdogan’s allies. The Dogan Media Group has held on to what it has on the unwritten condition that it go soft on the government. The group currently retains ownership of Hürriyet, one of the country’s largest newspapers, but, along the way, it lost ownership of another major daily, Milliyet.
This January, Turkish police raided the headquarters of Dogan Holding, the media group’s parent company, and arrested two of its executives on terror charges. They were accused of having links to the Gülen movement, which has dramatically fallen out with the government since 2013. Three years ago, on a visit to Istanbul, I met a senior editor at a leading newspaper who told me that censorship in Turkey does not necessarily involve the direct government intimidation of journalists. Rather, editors and reporters are aware of certain limits that they must not cross if they are to avoid pressure on their organisations and, as a consequence, the threat of an end to whatever little freedom they still enjoy. The actions against Dogan Holding in January were widely seen as a government reminder to all media organisations to keep their journalists tightly leashed.
Modi has cosied up to both Putin and Erdogan in recent times. The similarities between the three are hard to ignore—the outspoken nationalism, the centralisation of power within their respective parties and governments, the abhorrence of independent scrutiny. Where India departs from present-day Russia and Turkey is in the relative strength and independence of its democratic institutions, which serve to check the government’s autocratic impulses. But this offers us no grounds for complacency. Erdogan inherited a stronger set of counterweights against his powers than Putin did, but though these might have delayed his crackdown on independent media, he has weakened them to the point where now he has an alarmingly free hand.
India risks following the Turkish trajectory. The country’s media has already advanced far on the road to being controlled by owners ready to bend to government pressure, whether by inclination or compulsion. Proprietors of many major media organisations have significant interests in other sectors—for instance, real estate or resource extraction—where official support is essential. In India’s case, the government’s leverage is also bolstered because a significant share of media advertising revenues come from the public sector. Furthermore, there are numerous precedents of national governments coming down heavily against dissenting media organisations—so much so that they could be seen as forming a growing tradition. There were, of course, the media purges and explicit restrictions on the freedom of information under the Congress government during the Emergency. More recently, however, the precedents have very often involved BJP-led governments trying to intimidate critical media outlets via the tax authorities or security and investigative agencies.
In 2001, under the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, tax officials targeted financial backers of Tehelka. The magazine had recently published videos of numerous officials and politicians linked to the ruling administration taking bribes from reporters posing as salesmen of defence equipment. At least two investors and a journalist were also jailed. The same year, tax officials also went after Outlook, following a report from the magazine about the undue influence of powerful private companies on the Vajpayee administration’s economic policies. Vinod Mehta, Outlook’s editor, wrote to the prime minister, “Dear Atalji, the income tax raids on Outlook’s proprietor and, worse, the Outlook editorial office are shocking. You yourself have been a victim of the Emergency, so you should know better. I appreciate you and your advisers do not always agree with our point of view, but to order tax raids!”
Delhi Press, the company that owns this magazine, also faced official harassment under Vajpayee, although the incident received little public attention at the time. In June 1998, three months after Vajpayee formed a BJP-led government at the centre, a party of about 30 policemen travelled from Patiala to Delhi to arrest Vishva Nath, my grandfather and the founder of Delhi Press. The previous month, police in Punjab had received a complaint that accused Nath of blasphemy under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code in connection with a series of articles published between 1992 and 1998 in the Hindi magazine Sarita, of which Nath was then the editor and publisher. These articles, all well researched and backed up with citations, did such things as question regressive Hindu practices. The complainant was the president of a local religious organisation in the small town of Rajpura, Punjab.
Nath managed to leave the Delhi Press office by a rear exit before he could be detained, and quickly filed for bail. More raids occurred over the next six months—two more at the office, and several at the homes of the Nath family, with additional warrants to also arrest all of Nath’s three sons. On one occasion, police raided family residences at 4 am. Nath and his sons evaded arrest each time thanks to tip-offs from well-wishers in the police hierarchy. The raids eventually stopped, and the case has been lingering in the courts ever since.
The family later learnt, through sympathetic politicians, that the complainant was acting with the support of the BJP government, including the Punjab state leader Balram Das Tandon. The BJP was then part of the Punjab state government, under an alliance with the ruling Akali Dal, and Tandon was a state minister. At present, he is the governor of Chhattisgarh. That the government moved so swiftly, and with such show of force, against a magazine that questioned the practices of the Hindu religious establishment should not come as a surprise, given the nationalistic agenda that the current government has followed over the last three years.
So far, India has been resilient in protecting press freedom because whenever governments have attempted to exert control, there has been a strong collective response from the media, civil society, judiciary and political opposition. But the devolution of press freedom in Russia and Turkey, where strong leaders have rallied support in the name of nationalism, should warn us of early signs to intimidate and eventually control media. The present targeting of NDTV is no less of a provocation, and therefore deserves a strong reaction.