An attempted hostile takeover of a prominent news television channel by India’s richest man has revived concerns around media freedom in the country.
The 2022 Press Freedom Index prepared by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders places India at 150 out of 180 countries.
Besides the verbal and physical abuse—even killing—of scores of journalists by supporters of various political parties, unethical editorial processes, and the spread of fake news are all reasons for this poor ranking.
Then there is the matter of often slimly-disguised political bias of reporters, editors, and television anchors, too.
Billionaire Gautam Adani has made this surprise move amid these allegations.
A unit of his business empire yesterday (Aug. 24) announced the acquisition of 29.18% in NDTV through a complex deal. It has also issued an open offer for another 26% at Rs294 per share (cumulative: Rs493 crore, $61.73 million). If that goes through, the $13 billion group will have a controlling stake of 55% in the channel.
Apparently, nobody, not even NDTV’s high-profile founders saw this coming.
Adani is viewed as a close associate of prime minister Narendra Modi right from the latter’s days as Gujarat chief minister in the early 2000s—or perhaps even before. Add to that, Modi is also strongly backed by Mukesh Ambani whose Reliance Industries controls Network18, another Indian media giant.
Several other media empires are often seen to do the government’s bidding. And Adani already has a stake in Quint Digital Media.
In short, a considerable segment of India’s media industry is viewed as the Modi government’s boy scout.
The takeover of NDTV, among the remaining few outliers, therefore, has given India’s advocates of media freedom the jitters.
Gautam Adani to crush media freedom in India?
Founded in 1988 by journalists Radhika Roy and her husband Prannoy Roy, NDTV’s reportage has regularly questioned India’s BJP government and its often vociferous supporters. This has only bolstered its reputation as the one that didn’t bend.
Earlier, in what was viewed as its hounding by the government, allegations of financial violations were made against NDTV. A case was pursued against the channel by India’s anti-money laundering agency.
The question now is if all this could change.
The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) has alleged that Adani’s takeover of NDTV was “at the behest of the government of the day.”
“The move will reinforce the narrow, unipolar worldview of the ruling party and impose it further on citizens. The illusion that India is still a democracy now lies shattered,” it has said.
Some are hoping that despite being a hostile takeover, and even if the acquisition come through, Adani may, for whatever reason, not interfere much editorially. Such an assumption is apparently based on the operation of Quint Digital Media, in which Adani acquired a stake in March this year.
Is the Adani-NDTV acquisition a done deal?
The hope is that the NDTV promoters may not give up easily.
Hours after yesterday’s announcement, NDTV released a statement saying Adani’s move “was executed without any input from, conversation with, or consent of the NDTV founders.”
Legal experts, too, expect a fight.
“From NDTV’s statements, it seems this may not be a friendly takeover which generally is as per agreed terms and mechanism, and in fact, may end up being a hostile takeover,” Dipti Lavya Swain, founder and managing partner, DLS Law Offices, told Reuters.
The network did not waste time either.
In a late-night stock exchange filing yesterday, NDTV said, “Its founders Prannoy and Radhika Roy have since 2020 been barred from buying or selling shares in India’s securities market, and so cannot transfer shares which Adani was trying to seek in a bid to exert control,” Reuters reported.