In a move that sparked widespread outrage and was termed as "a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press", the CBI on Monday conducted searches at the houses of the NDTV news network's co-founder Prannoy Roy for allegedly causing financial losses to a private bank.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a case against Roy, his wife Radhika, and a private company and conducted searches at his south Delhi residence in Greater Kailash-I and his house in Dehradun for "loss of Rs 48 crore to ICICI Bank", officials said.
Officials said the New Delhi-based office of RRPR Holding, the promoter of the listed broadcaster, was also searched.
"Searches were conducted (on Monday) at four places, including Delhi and Dehradun," CBI spokesperson R.K. Gaur told IANS.
An FIR dated June 2 said the case has been registered against Roy, a veteran journalist, Radhika, NDTV and RRPR for "criminal conspiracy, cheating and criminal misconduct".
It relates to alleged irregularities in a 2008 loan of Rs 366 crore that NDTV took from the private bank on guarantee by the holding company.
The loan, according to the CBI complaint, was settled a year later for a repayment that was Rs 48 crore less than the loaned amount.
NDTV and its linked companies have been under the scanner since 2014 and were last year served notices by the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate.
But, it was for the first time that the CBI has come into the picture of financial probe against the network, which is often seen by Bharatiya Janata Party supporters as opposed to the party ideology and the government.
The news network, in a strongly-worded statement, said the CBI had "stepped up the concerted harassment of NDTV and its promoters based on the same old endless false accusations".
"NDTV and its promoters will fight tirelessly against this witch-hunt by multiple agencies. We will not succumb to these attempts to blatantly undermine democracy and free speech in India," the statement said.
"It is clearly the independence and fearlessness of NDTV's team that the ruling party's politicians cannot stomach. No matter how much the politicians attack us -- We will not give up the fight for freedom and the independence of media in India."
But Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu rubbished the witch-hunt allegation.
"Law is taking its own course. This government does not believe in interfering. If somebody does something wrong simply because they belong to the media, you cannot expect the government to keep quiet."
The CBI raids come days after NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan had an on-air verbal spat with BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra -- after he alleged that the news network was following an "agenda" -- during a debate over the new central notification on cattle trade and slaughter. The BJP leader was told to leave the programme.
The CBI move triggered sharp reactions from journalists, politicians and commentators.
Congress leader and former Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari said the raids were a "direct assault" on the freedom of the press.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee termed the raids as a "disturbing trend" and her Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal said it was an attempt to "silence independent and anti-establishment voices".
Former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav retweeted Banerjee's and other tweets condemning the CBI raids.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman of the Observer Research Foundation who was earlier associated with the BJP and was close to L.K. Advani, said: "Raid on Prannoy Roy has less to do with financial wrongdoing, more with the 'wrong' of NDTV being an independent media voice. I condemn it."
Historian Ramachandra Guha, who writes for various national and international periodicals, tweeted: "The UPA regime was defined by cronyism and corruption; this BJP government... is consumed by the desire to punish its critics and rivals."
N. Ram, a veteran journalist and publisher of The Hindu and its former Editor, said: "Those who value media freedom must speak out and act (be)cause they know that while nothing will happen in the end, the process is the punishment"
Shekhar Gupta, also a veteran mediaperson, said: "CBI FIR for 48 cr 'loss' to private bank. Remember that line: name the man comrade, I'll give you the charge?"
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