Direct-to-home television, as illustrated in this June 2015 photo taken atop an apartment building in Bangalore, has made big strides in India, but media freedom can come under attack. Photo: iStock
Direct-to-home television, as illustrated in this June 2015 photo taken atop an apartment building in Bangalore, has made big strides in India, but media freedom can come under attack. Photo: iStock

On June 9, an impressive collection of journalists gathered at the Press Club of India in the nation’s capital to express solidarity with New Delhi Television, which on June 2 had been subjected to a police raid by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a government body lacking autonomy. The charge was that NDTV had been involved in a seven-year-old case of criminal conspiracy and misconduct.

The discussion at the Press Club was led by a panel of eminent journalists: Shobana Jain (Indian Women’s Press Corps), Arun Shourie (former editor and minister), Fali Nariman (jurist), Prannoy Roy (chairman of NDTV), HK Dua (former editor and member of Parliament), S Nihal Singh (former editor) and Kuldip Nayyar (journalist). Many journalists participated in the discussion.

A number of impressive speeches were made. In the interest of brevity, one may rely on the legal case made by jurist Fali Nariman, which exposes the CBI case against NDTV as dubious and politically motivated.

On June 2, the CBI lodged a First Information Report (FIR) under India’s Criminal Procedure Code in the CBI court in New Delhi, alleging breaches of criminal law on the part of NDTV and unknown persons of the ICICI Bank on an offense that had allegedly taken place in the financial year 2008-09.

It was strange that the FIR was lodged seven years after the alleged offense.

The FIR was not based on any discovery by the CBI on its own but solely on the basis of  information supplied by one Sanjay Dutt, director of Quantum Securities Pvt Ltd, to the director of the CBI in a letter dated April 28, 2017.

Dutt did not explain why the criminal conspiracy and misconduct were not brought to light earlier. Nor did the CBI bother to find out why.

Significantly, the complainant (although he had sent more than 200 e-mails to NDTV on various occasions) had not bothered to address any communication to it on the specific allegation contained in his complaint of April 28.

He also did not explain why he did not file an FIR in a criminal court himself alleging breaches of criminal law on the part of NDTV.

It was strange that the CBI took up the case with the CBI court on the basis of information supplied in a private complaint without the complainant having been required earlier to make his case before a criminal court.

It was further strange that a private individual with a grouse against a TV channel did not himself file the complaint but went to the CBI, and that the latter promptly filed an FIR followed by raids that were widely publicized.

More important, the CBI on receiving a criminal complaint omitted to ask those against whom the complaint was made (in this case NDTV and ICICI Bank) what they had to say in the matter, particularly since the 2017 allegation related to an event that had taken place years earlier, in 2008-09.

The CBI ought to have followed this procedure before conducting the raids on June 5, 2017, and even before filing the FIR on June 2. The CBI did not write a single letter to NDTV regarding the complaint against it made by Sanjay Dutt.

Nariman held that legally speaking, whenever the CBI is investigating a criminal complaint (an FIR) not of its own making but only on the basis of information supplied by a third party against the media, it should in furtherance of press freedom guaranteed by the Indian constitution first inquire from the owners or promoters of the company running the media outlet concerned what it has to say in the matter before conducting raids on its premises and on premises of those in charge of the outlet, and before bringing a criminal complaint on the basis of such information.

This the CBI must do, not as a matter of courtesy or favor, but as a matter of constitutional obligation.

In the present case, NDTV chairman Prannoy Roy, who had a complete answer to each and every statement made in the complaint of April 28, 2017 (headed “confidential and privileged”), addressed by Sanjay Dutt to the CBI, never had an opportunity to deal with its contents.

But the events immediately preceding the much publicized raids on NDTV were more significant.

1. On June 1, 2017, on a television program of NDTV when a participant was speaking and official Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Sambit Patra interrupted him and the participant asked whether Patra had the right to interrupt, the response by Patra was: “I interrupt people only on NDTV, and I do that because NDTV has an agenda, and I need to do that.”

2. At this, the anchor asked Patra to leave or apologize.

3. Patra said: “Why should I leave? I will expose the NDTV agenda. I should expose you and your TV’s agenda.”

4. The anchor replied that to use such language and make that kind of an accusation was unacceptable.

5. But Patra persisted and said, “I will expose it till the end of this debate,” at which the anchor said, “I am not continuing this debate with you any longer.”

6. It was after BJP spokesman Patra’s accusation on live TV on June 1, 2017, that the CBI raids took place on June 5 at Prannoy Roy’s residence in Delhi, at his homes in Dehradun and Mussoorie, and at the NDTV office in Delhi and its financial and accounts offices.

This sequence of events was highly worrisome.

Nariman said that journalist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in an article in The Indian Express on June 7, said: “Once the press called all politicians cheats, the political class simply turned the table on them by calling them all ‘presstitutes’.  And the result has been a wholesale delegitimization of the media.”

Nariman added that in the past when there was a single-party majoritarian government, as there is again in India today, as when Indira Gandhi was prime minister and for a while when Rajiv Gandhi was PM, a similar situation prevailed and there were similar attacks on the freedom of the press. He concluded that the media supported by an independent judiciary were the only safeguards to an open democracy, giving further historical examples from India and elsewhere.

A press release issued by the News Broadcasters Association at the end of the proceedings said that while no one is above the law, freedom of the media is inviolable in a democracy; basic freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution of India in Article 19(1)a; and any attempt to muzzle the press by utilizing government police agencies such as the CBI would be met with resistance.

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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