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Back off, don't preach us about press freedom: CBI on NYT's NDTV editorial

Neither the editorial nor the CBI's letter minced words when it came to putting their views forward

Bhaswar Kumar  |  New Delhi 

Prannoy Roy
The residence of founder and executive chairman of NDTV, Prannoy Roy, where the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducted raids in connection with a case in which it was alleged that Roy and his wife, Radhika, had caused loss to a bank.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has a message for the New York Times (NYT): Back off and do not preach to us.   

"India does not require any lesson on freedom of the press from The Times", the CBI's letter to NYT, written in response to an NYT editorial titled India’s Battered Free Press, said. 

The editorial in question didn't pull any punches, calling the June 5 CBI raid on NDTV founder Prannoy Roy's residences for allegedly causing losses to a private bank a "fresh blow" to press freedom in India. The tone really wasn't charitable, not one bit. Sample this: "The raids mark an alarming new level of intimidation of India’s news media under Prime Minister Narendra Modi." 

CBI spokesman R K Gaur, for his part, didn't bother with sugarcoating his words either, calling the NYT editorial "one-sided" and defending the sanctity of India's institutions, the CBI's in particular, under the aegis of the nation's "rich and diverse cultural heritage and democratic ethos". 

As reported earlier, the CBI had raided Roy's residences, in New Delhi and three other locations, on June 5. NDTV termed the investigation agency's actions a "witch-hunt" based on "same old" false accusations. 

The agency has registered a case against Roy, his wife Radhika and RRPR Holdings for allegedly causing losses of Rs 48 crore to ICICI Bank, CBI sources said. 

But, why did the CBI, of all institutions, feel the need to publicly respond to the NYT? The answer may lie in how the original editorial treated the matter. 

Letting the big fish swim on

The editorial suggests that CBI's explanation regarding why it raided Roy just "doesn't wash". The wording couldn't have been harsher, short of calling CBI's statements on the matter pure baloney. 

The editorial went on to juxtapose the raids on Roy with the lack of action shown by authorities against large corporates who "regularly default on debt".

If that wasn't enough, the piece also called out the Prime Minister, stating that even as India's state-owned banks were being crushed under bad debts, the Modi government was hesitating in going after the big defaulters. 
Based on this dithering when it comes to the big fish, paired with the fact that NDTV stated that it had repaid its loan to ICICI in full, the editorial said that "the inescapable conclusion", at least for Modi's critics, was that the raids were part of a "vendetta against NDTV".

As reported earlier, hours after its promoters were searched by the CBI, NDTV produced a seven-year-old receipt issued by confirming the closure of the Rs 375-crore loan after repayment in full. 

In a stock exchange filing, NDTV attached an August 7, 2009, copy of the ICICI Bank's receipt to RRPR Holding Pvt Ltd confirming that "the entire amount due and payable to you in respect of the subject facility (Rs 375 crore loan) has been repaid in full."  

Of course, the CBI does not agree. Ostensibly, the CBI's raids were based on complaints by Quantum Securities, a firm run by Delhi-based stockbroker and NDTV shareholder Sanjay Dutt. In the latest complaint, dated April 28, Quantum alleged “pecuniary loss of over Rs 48 crore to arising out of unlawful/undue favour and profit transferred to promoters of New Delhi Television — being Dr Prannoy Roy, Radhika Roy and RRPR Holding.” The complaint added that “allegedly conniving, committing fraud and entering into a conspiracy with promoters of NDTV to facilitate transfer of ownership of a news broadcasting company to a khoka/shell company.” (Read more

Given that the powers that be have made it clear that no vendetta is being prosecuted against the channel, it appears that CBI felt the need to publicly tell off NYT for its 'temerity'. 

Stating that the editorial "gives the impression that action is not being taken against other big loan defaulters and that the raids on NDTV’s founders were a part of a 'vendetta' against the broadcaster, Gaur's letter calls on NYT to consider "the investigation history of the case against RRPR Holdings by different tax and law enforcement agencies in India since 2011".

Of course, Gaur's letter also highlights actions being taken against other defaulters. The letter states that the CBI is currently investigating over 100 criminal cases worth a total of over $5 billion, adding that many "leading loan defaulters" are already behind bars and their assets have been attached. Gaur states that "prosecutions are being pursued vigorously in the courts".

The letter also rebuts the argument that the NDTV case is small in terms of the alleged loss at stake. Instead, Gaur argues that the ICIC's alleged loss is  "merely tip of the iceberg", adding that RRPR Holdings is being investigated for "irregularities in the mobilisation of funds used for loan repayment" and that there have been "serious defaults" in tax repayment. 

It's not just about the case

However, more than the merits of the case, or the lack thereof, it is the image that the editorial paints, of a government closing its fist around a beleaguered press that may have ticked off the Modi administration, and the CBI by extension. 

The editorial claims that "journalists have faced increasing pressures" since Modi came to power. "They risk their careers — or lives — to report news that is critical of the government or delves into matters that powerful politicians and business interests do not want exposed," the editorial goes on to say. The cherry on the top? The editorial credits NDTV with remaining "defiant" under such adverse conditions and for refusing to toe the government's line. 

Such language, more than anything else, may have prompted the larger defence of Indian democracy by Gaur: "India has a robust and independent judiciary that strongly protects democratic freedom and that an aggrieved person can always approach."