Seven years after causing an alleged loss of Rs 48 crore to ICICI Bank on a loan they took, NDTV founders Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy were raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation Monday morning. Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu is right to affirm that a media house cannot presume itself to be above the law. Indeed, this is especially true when ownership of most media today is defined by a vertiginous web of cross-holdings involving
corporates and entities for whom media is not a primary business. In the interests of transparency, NDTV must submit to due process. The CBI’s FIR asks questions about disclosures by NDTV and ICICI Bank that will need to be addressed. But the story will unfold under intense public scrutiny, since summary raids on media houses are relics from a dark time to which no one wishes to return. Late last year, Naidu’s ministry, indefensibly, had ordered NDTV India to shut down for a day, a decision it, wisely, revoked. So, the manner in which the new NDTV probe is conducted has significant implications for freedom of speech, the health of democracy and the image of the premier investigative agency.
Due process may have been followed so far but there are disquieting questions. The CBI has stepped in seven years after the event — in the interregnum, two of its directors are in the dock for their alleged ties with some accused in other cases — and barely a month after a complaint was lodged. Large parts of its FIR are little more than a cut-and-paste job from the complaint with no evidence of any original investigation. Significantly, ICICI Bank which is alleged to have suffered a presumptive loss has not complained. Further, it was a private loss, with no implications for the exchequer. Such private
matters are customarily decided by the law of torts and the government is not expected to weigh in. Disputes concerning defaults bigger by orders of magnitude are being heard by the courts and the government has made no attempt to short-circuit the process by letting the CBI loose. The complainant, a former consultant with NDTV, has approached the court but has got no order.
For these reasons, this investigation, both in form and content, is a touchstone. The CBI must ensure that it is nobody’s caged parrot. Its statement issued on Tuesday that it “fully respects the freedom of press and is committed to the free functioning of news operations”, is welcome. How it conducts the investigation — and itself — will be a test of this commitment.