Billionaire Modi ally on verge of taking over independent Indian news channel

One of India’s few remaining news channels known for independent reporting is about to be taken over by a billionaire ally of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.

In recent years, NDTV (New Delhi Television) has earned a reputation as one of the last bastions of independent journalism among India’s mainstream media, which have increasingly been put under pressure to toe the government line under Modi, who came to power in 2014.

In August, Gautam Adani, the Indian industrialist who is Asia’s richest man, began a covert takeover bid for NDTV by acquiring a third-party company that had a stake in the channel.

The move was met with fierce resistance from NDTV’s husband and wife founders and directors, Prannoy and Radhika Roy, who said the deal was done “without discussion, consent or notice” and who sought to block the transfer of shares.

However, this week it was confirmed that the Adani group had acquired a 29.18% stake in the news group and has an open offer on an additional 26% of the company. This week, the Roys stepped down from the board of NDTV’s promoter company, which had sold their shares to Adani.

Journalists and analysts expressed concern that an Adani takeover would compromise NDTV’s editorial independence, which has stood in stark contrast to other mainstream news channels, which have largely become a mouthpiece for Modi’s rightwing government. As a result, NDTV had come under direct pressure from the government, while its founders were investigated for money laundering and banned from leaving India.

The relationship between the prime minister and Adani is well documented, dating back over two decades to when Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat and Adani an up-and-coming Gujarati businessman. Modi’s rise through the political ranks was mirrored by the expansion of Adani’s vast empire, now the third largest in India, which includes everything from coalmining to transport and renewable energy.

Modi flew to Delhi on Adani’s private jet after he won the 2014 election, and since Modi came to power Adani’s net worth has increased by almost 250%, in part because of a push into green energy. He recently overtook Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, to become the world’s third wealthiest man.

Vinod Jose, the editor of Caravan, the Indian long-form news magazine that has faced pressure and criminal cases against its journalists for articles critical of the government, said Adani’s move for NDTV was emblematic of India’s “oligarchy capitalism” under Modi.

“It is natural that a rich man owns a legacy newsroom when there are no monopolistic and restrictive trade practices laws in force,” said Jose. “Modi and his big friendlier corporations are reaping the benefits. The losers are the Indian people.”

As the likelihood of the takeover grew on Wednesday, the mood in the NDTV newsroom was sombre. “I am devastated,” said one NDTV journalist, who asked not to be named to protect their job. “I knew this was coming but when it hit us yesterday, I think all of us lost it, especially journalists like me who are trying to keep journalism alive against all odds with real ground reports.”

The reporter added: “The mood is very sad. Obviously everybody is putting on a brave face but nobody knows what the future holds … I am sure we will have to toe certain lines.”

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Adani denied that his acquisition of NDTV would undermine its independence and said he wanted the channel to have a “global footprint”. “Independence means if government has done something wrong, you say it’s wrong,” Adani told the paper. “But at the same time, you should have courage when the government is doing the right thing every day. You have to also say that.”

One of the first to leave prior to the imminent takeover was Ravish Kumar, an award-winning NDTV news anchor and senior channel executive who was known for fearlessly reporting stories critical of the government.

Kumar, who joined the channel in 1996, tendered his resignation on Wednesday after news of the transfer of NDTV shares to Adani broke. In a video released on his new YouTube channel, Kumar appealed to the people to continue supporting journalists who speak truth to power at a time when there is a “serious threat to democracy” in India.

“This day had to come soon or later. There are many news channels in this country, but all of them are ‘godi [lapdog] media’,” said Kumar, using a pejorative term to describe media in the grip of the government.

Shakuntala Banaji, a professor of media at the London School of Economics, said the takeover fitted into a larger, worrying trend where “the media space for democratic information and debate in India has been relentlessly narrowing in recent years, with large media houses bought and paid for by owners with ties to the far right and allegiances to those in power”.

Banaji said the shrinking media landscape meant Indian democracy had been “gutted from the inside” as attacks on media outlets and arrests of critical journalists led to many “staying silent out of fear”, while paid news and disinformation against minorities and dissenters have risen unchecked.

Aakash Hassan contributed reporting from Delhi

The Guardian