Investigators have raided the home of the founder of a top Indian television channel in connection with a loan from ICICI Bank, sparking accusations from NDTV that the country’s crime agency is trying to undermine free speech.
New Delhi’s Central Bureau of Investigation searched four properties in the capital and Dehradun in northern India on Monday, including the office and homes of Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika, officials told local media. NDTV confirmed the raids.
According to people familiar with the case, the CBI is investigating what it says are irregularities in a loan Mr Roy took from the private-sector ICICI Bank in 2008. Local reports said the money was not repaid in full, quoting law enforcement officials who promised to take action against “wilful defaulters”.
Neither the CBI nor ICICI Bank responded to requests for comment. Mr Roy could not be reached. NDTV issued a statement denying the allegations: “This morning, the CBI stepped up the concerted harassment of NDTV and its promoters based on the same old endless false accusations,” it said. “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.”
Later NDTV added that the loan to Mr Roy had been repaid in full and said: “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.”
Mr Roy and his wife set up NDTV in 1988. Since then it has won a reputation for political independence while launching some of India’s most recognised faces — including Barkha Dutt and Arnab Goswami — in broadcast news.
But it has also been dogged by accusations of tax evasion and fraud — allegations which its supporters say are evidence of government attempts to muzzle the channel.
For the past few years, India’s income tax department has been investigating the channel over the 2008 sale of $150m in shares to US company General Electric. The department says this was a sham transaction used for money laundering — charges both companies have denied. Last year the department fined NDTV Rs5.25bn (about $82m) for tax evasion, a decision subsequently overturned by a tribunal but reinstated by Delhi’s high court in March this year.
NDTV is reportedly planning to appeal the judgment.
Late last year, NDTV’s Hindi channel was nearly taken off air for 24 hours after ministers accused it of damaging national security with live coverage of an attack on the Indian army base at Pathankot.
At the time, the Editors Guild of India said the proposed ban — which was abandoned at the last minute — was redolent of the mid-1970s “emergency”, when the then prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended a range of civil liberties, including freedom of the press.
Prominent Indian journalists made similar claims on Monday. Praveen Swami, editor of strategic affairs at the Indian Express newspaper, called the raids a “defining moment”, adding: “The last time this sort of thing happened was during the Emergency.”
The raids came three weeks after CBI officers searched the home of P Chidambaram, former finance minister for the opposition Congress party, in an unrelated case Congress said was also evidence of politically motivated action.
Meanwhile, the media landscape appears to be becoming more favourable towards the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party led by prime minister Narendra Modi, especially since its crushing election win earlier this year in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s biggest state.
Last year, Mr Goswami, one of India’s most recognised news anchors, set up rightwing news channel Republic TV, whose first big investigation was into Shashi Tharoor, a Congress party MP and prominent government critic. One of Mr Goswami’s biggest backers is Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the independent MP who is vice-chairman of the BJP-led governing coalition in Kerala.