CBI raids NDTV’s Prannoy Roy, wife over ‘bank fraud’, channel cries witch-hunt
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) searched on Monday the offices and homes of NDTV founder Prannoy Roy over allegations of defrauding a bank, a move the news broadcaster denounced as a “witch-hunt” to muzzle free speech.
Federal agents named Roy, his wife Radhika and a private company linked to NDTV – RRPR Holding Private Ltd – among others in a criminal case for allegedly causing losses to ICICI Bank.
In 2008, ICICI Bank gave the private holding company a loan of Rs 366 crore on personal guarantees of the Roys who pledged their NDTV shares that were valued more than the prevailing price at the Bombay Stock Exchange.
Within a year, ICICI settled for foreclosure of the loan, agreeing to a part-waiver of interest that allegedly resulted in a loss of Rs 48 crores for the bank, the CBI’s formal investigations launched last week said. The Roys moved out an equivalent amount from RRPR’s bank account, it alleged.
“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 first information report (FIR).
ICICI Bank refused to comment.
The raids come at a time when the opposition has accused the government of selectively targeting charities and media groups as part of a campaign to control free speech and dissent.
This year, India slipped three places to 136th in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, which highlighted concerns that Hindu nationalists were “trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought”.
Neither of the Roy couple was available for comment but NDTV called the raids “concerted harassment… based on the same old endless false accusations”.
“We will not succumb to these attempts to blatantly undermine democracy and free speech in India,” the news broadcaster said in a statement.
The Editors Guild of India expressed “deep concern” over the raids.
“Entry of police and other agencies into the media offices is a serious matter,” the Guild said in a statement. “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.”
Other leading journalists were more blunt in their criticism.
N Ram, chairman and publisher of The Hindu group of newspapers, described the raids as “anti-democratic action”.
“The CBI raid, based on a false private complaint by a discredited individual on a matter going back nearly a decade, is a crude attempt to suppress Indian news television’s most independent and trusted voice, NDTV. It certainly looks like an attempt to send a nasty message to the rest of the news media that the BJP regime will not tolerate criticism.
“NDTV has done very well by standing up spiritedly to these tactics and putting out evidence that the loan on which it supposedly defaulted was fully paid and that this was acknowledged by the private bank in a letter. Freedom of expression, which has come under pressure and numerous attacks in recent months, must be safeguarded at all costs. Newspapers, television organisations, and the rest of the media must come out strongly in solidarity with the co-founders, Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy, in the face of this anti-democratic action,” he told HT in London.
The Opposition too rallied behind NDTV and condemned the raids.
“Dissent can never be silenced through intimidation. Power to ask questions & demand answers is the greatest gift of Democracy #RightToDissent,” the Congress party tweeted. The Trinamool Congress and Aam Aadmi Party also spoke out in support of NDTV.
The CBI registered its FIR on the basis of a letter from the Enforcement Directorate (ED) last year that pointed out alleged irregularities in the loan transaction by the private sector ICICI Bank, sources said. CBI sources cited a 2016 Supreme Court judgment in an unrelated case that said private bank officers were also public servants as they handled public money.
The ED and income tax (I-T) authorities had been investigating NDTV since 2014 in a separate case involving the receiving of funds from a foreign institution and settling of that account at 80% less than the original amount received.
The CBI and ED have also been investigating RRPR for funds it received from foreign entities related to a telecom deal between Aircel and Maxis, as well as a case involving buying planes for the national carrier Air India, two senior officials independently told HT.
The majority shareholdings of the NDTV are with the RRPR, the CBI said in the FIR, adding NDTV came to the notice of Income Tax department earlier when it found the media company floated and operated 33 shell companies with no real business, no employees and no business premises in UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Mauritius and between 2006 and 2012 to raise a fund of Rs 1100 crores.
As per I-T department, around Rs 400 crores of Rs 1100 crores was transferred to NDTV in India through a Mauritius-based shell company and Rs 700 crore was retained in the UK and the Netherlands out of which Rs 400 crores was returned to unidentified investors. The balance of Rs 300 crores remains unaccounted as on date, the FIR said.
The premises of NDTV were not raided on Monday. Searches were carried out at four places in Delhi and Dehradun in Uttarakhand, CBI sources said.
(With inputs from HTC in London)