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Takeover bid of NDTV sparks media freedom fears

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
August 29, 2022

Gautam Adani has launched a hostile takeover bid of NDTV. The move has sparked fears about the future of media, particularly in light of the billionaire's relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A microphone of New Delhi Television (NDTV) is placed on a tripod along a roadside in New Delhi, India
Adani's deal to acquire NDTV is expected to go through in the coming monthsImage: Adnan Abidi/REUTERS

Last week, the richest man in Asia and ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi mounted a takeover attempt of New Delhi Television Limited (NDTV), a broadcaster that pioneered independent news in India.

Through his Adani Media Networks Limited (AMNL), Gautam Adani announced the acquisition of a 29% stake in NDTV and a proposal to buy an additional 26% from public shareholders, making it a majority stakeholder.

A takeover by stealth

The announcement, which was made through a regulatory filing to the stock exchanges, immediately developed into a raging controversy. NDTV said that its founder directors and the media house had not been "consulted" before the notice was served on them.

"The NDTV founders and the company would like to make it clear that this was executed without any input from, conversation with, or consent of the NDTV founders, who, like NDTV, have been made aware of this exercise of rights only today," the channel said in a statement.

"NDTV has never compromised on the heart of its operations: its journalism. We continue to proudly stand by that journalism."

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For now, NDTV has said it needs approval from the Securities and Exchange Board of India watchdog to transfer the shares, as it had been barred since 2020 from buying or selling shares in India's securities market.

Should the Adani Group deal go through, as many envisage, the founding duo, economist Prannoy Roy and his journalist wife Radhika Roy, will keep a stake of around 32% in NDTV.

While market analysts say the acquisition could be delayed by a few months, the proposed NDTV transaction marks Adani's highest-profile media maneuver to date.

"This acquisition is a significant milestone in the journey of AMNL's goal to pave the path of new age media across platforms," Sanjay Pugalia, CEO of AMNL, said in a statement.

In May, the group forayed into the media business by acquiring a minority stake in Quintillion Business Media Private Limited (QBM), a digital business news platform.

Regarded as one of the few independent voices in India's rapidly polarizing media landscape, the takeover attempt of NDTV has triggered concerns among journalists and politicians that a change of ownership could undermine the media outlet's editorial integrity.

Democracy in India takes another hit

Gautam Adani, on the other hand, is believed to be close to the administration of Modi. The tycoon's fortune has soared in recent years, especially after the current government assumed office in 2014.

The group operates a wide swathe of businesses from shipping ports and power facilities to airports and infrastructure. It has been looking to add the one missing block in its corporate edifice: Mainstream media operations.

The takeover of NDTV barely two years before India's next general election in 2024 is seen by many as part of a strategy to overwhelmingly dominate the media discourse in favor of Prime Minister Modi.

The takeover will also pit Adani against his rival, Mukesh Ambani, a billionaire industrialist of the Reliance Industries group, which is already an established power in the country's media sector through a controlling interest in Network18, whose group channels include CNN News18, Colors TV, MTV India, Nickelodeon India, Comedy Central India and VH1 India.

"What this [the takeover] will mean is that the BJP government under whose watch Adani's empire has grown will now acquire more media muscle to counter its critics. The hostile takeover bid is a return favor," Sevanti Ninan, researcher and media critic, told DW.

Ninan pointed out that the Adani group was also buying into influential platforms to counter hostile reporting of its own interests.

"It is the logical next step after pressuring media houses in recent years into self-censorship, and sending defamation notices to others. The group's record in seeking to also tame Australian media has been documented both here and in Australia," added Ninan.

Pamela Philipose, a media researcher, who is a senior fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research, maintained one of the reasons NDTV has been able to scrutinize the political establishment over the years has been its relative independence.

"Here is an individual [Adani] who possibly more than any other corporate or political honcho in the country has deployed the sledgehammer of civil cases and SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suits against journalists," Philipose told DW.

"Media professionals have lost jobs, been incredibly inconvenienced and forced to work under the fear of possible defamation action," she said.

"Ultimately, it appears, for Asia's richest man the media remain a potent tool, not to protect and enhance democracy, but to protect and enhance his business interests and create a climate that ensures policymaking that favors him, whether in India or anywhere else in the world."

Gautam Adani
Analysts say Adani's purchase of a majority stake in NDTV is a threat to democracyImage: Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto/picture alliance

One of the last independent media bastions

In 2017, India's Central Bureau of Investigation raided the home and offices of NDTV founders Prannoy and Radhika Roy, a move the news broadcaster denounced as a "witch-hunt" to muzzle free speech. The raids were conducted in connection with loans from a bank taken out by the Roys, starting in 2008.

Two years later, the Roys were stopped by the authorities from boarding a flight while they were going on a holiday.

Journalists who have worked with NDTV affirm that the broadcaster has been the core of India's liberal establishment.

"For example, it is perhaps the only TV network that hasn't tried profiting from hate and has by and large stayed away from Muslim bashing," Sandeep Bhushan, a former employee, told DW.

'Takeover preparation for the 2024 general election'

"The Adani takeover will once again bring back into focus the issue of media monopolies and distortions in the media market, something that has been flagged earlier. This takeover, as and when it happens, is preparation for the 2024 general elections. Modi wants the media as his and the government's force multiplier," said Bhushan.

The Roys launched NDTV in 1988 and their exit will mark the end of media entrepreneurs who were the pioneers in building India's TV industry.

In the 2022 edition of the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, India ranked at the 150th position out 180 countries, eight positions lower than last year.

Edited by: John Silk

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11