Filings with the registrar of companies in the ministry of corporate affairs have revealed that five Indian news media companies—NDTV, News Nation, India TV, News24 and Network18—are either indebted to Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian and the owner of Reliance Industries, or to Mahendra Nahata, an industrialist and associate of Ambani’s, who is also on the board of Reliance’s new telecom venture, Reliance Jio.
Through loans and investments, Ambani, Nahata and the industrialist Abhey Oswal have given the five media companies funds that range from tens to hundreds of crores of rupees. As a result, the control that the three businessmen wield over these media networks varies from 20 to over 70 percent. This is a cause for concern for the freedom of speech in this country. The state of affairs also raises questions about monopolistic practices that may be in conflict with the competition laws of India.
On 12 August 2014, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, TRAI, published a paper titled Recommendation on Media Ownership. In its opening remarks, the paper said, “The right to freedom of speech is essential for sustaining the vitality of democracy. This is why the right is sacrosanct; it is fiercely protected by the media. The question that arises is whether reposing such a right in the media simultaneously casts an obligation on the media to convey information and news that is accurate, truthful and unbiased.” “What happens in the media,” the paper went on to state, “is the concern of the entire country.”
The TRAI had highlighted this belief in the context of its argument that the ownership of media companies by a handful of entities would increase the “possibility of misuse of the rights of the media for interests that are not in the larger public good.” The paper warned against such structures because of their “negative impact on media diversity and plurality.” Elaborating on these fears, it stated, “There may be thousands of newspapers and hundreds of news channels in the news media market, but if they are all ‘controlled’ by only a handful of entities, then there is insufficient plurality of news and views presented to the people.”
A day after the paper was released, R Jagannathan, the former editor of the Indian news website Firstpost, published an editorial on the website that declared, “Trai’smedia ownership curbs make no sense: half of India’s media may have to shut down.” Jagannathan opened his piece by saying that TRAI’s recommendations “need to be thrown in the nearest dustbin.” Arguing that the lack of corporate finance in media companies was no assurance of an impartial media, Jagannathan valiantly defended the current structure, going so far as to assert that the TRAI’s recommendations would only create a more opaque system. “If corporates want to run media houses,” he noted, “they will do so, Trai or no Trai.” Jagannathan’s blanket dismissal of the recommendations was not surprising; only perhaps, a little ironic. The website whose editorial direction he was steering at that time, and on which he had published this point of view, is a part of Network18, a media conglomerate that owns CNN-IBN, IBN 7, CNBC Awaaz, CNBC TV18, IBN Lokmat and Firstpost.