The Central Bureau of Investigation has responded to an editorial in The New York Times' last week that was critical of the Modi government and accused it of unleashing an "alarming new level of intimidation of India's news media."
The premise for the damning editorial were the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raids on the houses and offices of Prannoy Roy, the founder and owner of NDTV, widely seen as a liberal media outlet whose editorial orientation is at odds with the nationalist ideals of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party and its affiliates.
The raids, the CBI said at the time, were about a specific loan Roy's holding company took from ICICI Bank. It said it suspected foul play and conspiracy in how the borrower got a more favourable repayment term than what was originally granted. NDTV has since published evidence that it had pre-closed the loan and the haircut the bank took in the rate of interest was in return for that. Independent observers have since said this is a routine banking practise and CBI prima facie doesn't appear to have a credible case.
In its response, carried by the NYT on Thursday, the CBI made four points: NYT's assessment of the raids was "one sided," the ICICI loan on which Roy allegedly defaulted is only the starting point of the investigation, press freedom in India is intact and the American newspaper needed to quit lecturing the government.
Interestingly, in its response to the NYT today, which is ostensibly about press freedom, the CBI has expanded the scope of its investigations into NDTV.
More than the raids
The response has been written R.K. Gaur, the CBI spokesperson, but the contents of the letters deals with matters which have nothing to do with the raids at Roy's home. Why is the CBI talking about press freedom and offering justifications for the time when NDTV Hindi was taken off the air, a matter that comes squarely under the ministry of information and broadcasting?
Although authored by the CBI spokesperson, it feels more like a response from the broader government, sanctioned several pay grades higher.
It would appear that this government is sensitive about its reputation overseas, which is undeniably a good thing.
Trail To Reliance?
Gaur wrote: "The ICICI bank's loss is merely tip of the iceberg. RRPR Holdings, the holding company of NDTV, is also being investigated for irregularities in the mobilization of funds used for loan repayment. There have also been serious defaults in tax payment."
The CBI has revealed more about its raids than what the agency has told the Indian media so far. It could also be a face saving measure after the ICICI Bank loan charge was publicly deemed by observers to be a dud.
The key line in the statement is "mobilization of funds used for loan repayment". As The Indian Express and The Caravan have reported, NDTV's promoters appear to have mobilized funds from entities linked to Reliance Industries Ltd. It will be interesting to watch how that line of investigation proceeds.
Just two days ago, NDTV had released a detailed statement responding to the "unsubstantiated allegations against NDTV and its promoters".
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