A financial tug-of-war between Asia’s richest man and an influential TV news network in India is triggering alarm over dwindling independent media in the world’s largest democracy.
This week, Gautam Adani, the world’s fourth-richest man and India’s biggest infrastructure magnate, announced the acquisition of nearly 30 percent of New Delhi Television (NDTV). He also proposed buying an additional 26 percent from the news network’s public shareholders. NDTV, in turn, said the acquisition was done without any input or consent of its founders, and called it a “hostile takeover.”
Adani, crucially, is known to be a close associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Media watchers call NDTV one of the last bastions of independent media in a country where most media ownership lies in the hands of a powerful and politically connected few. Under Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, media censorship has escalated. In the past, NDTV faced temporary bans and was accused of being anti-national for reporting news critical of the government. Critics say that Adani, who has a net worth of $139.9 billion and whose success is seen as directly aligned with Modi’s policy objectives, could impact NDTV’s journalism.
On Thursday, NDTV tried to block Adani’s attempts to acquire a majority stake. On Friday, Adani Enterprises announced that regulatory restrictions imposed by NDTV will not affect their attempts to do so.
India’s media industry is one of the world’s largest, with over 17,000 newspapers, 100,000 magazines and 178 TV news channels. And yet, its journalism landscape serves as a cautionary tale for authoritarian societies. Out of a list of 180 countries, the World Press Freedom Index puts India in 150th place. Last year, 108 journalists were attacked, six killed, and 13 media houses targeted by authorities for their critical reporting, according to one estimate.
“There has always been a certain degree of bias across TV channels for years, but we’ve seen a stark rise in hyperpartisanship in news coverage and discussions since 2014,” Manisha Pande, executive editor of media critique website Newslaundry, told VICE World News.
Modi first became prime minister in 2014, and since then, human rights reports have documented an aggressive crackdown on critical reporting on the government. At the same time, many peddled a rosy picture of current events, or fueled bigoted sentiments against the country’s minorities.
Pande, who analyses Indian television news, said NDTV stood out in this deeply polarised space. “For example, if we’re covering Modi’s speech, many news channels would show how great those speeches were,” she said. “NDTV would be an exception to scrutinise it.” All this could change after Adani’s takeover, she added.
Last year, Adani filed a defamation suit against journalist and author Paranjoy Guha Thakurta for critical reporting, alleging Modi’s government tweaked rules relating to power projects in special economic zones, which benefitted Adani. A gag order against Thakurta still stands.
A Reporters Without Borders study on media ownership found that a majority of leading Indian news outlets are controlled by individuals with political ties.
Similar concerns have been raised in the past after Reliance, a company owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani – another billionaire with close ties to Modi – acquired a big media house in 2014.
NDTV’s acquisition by Adani, experts say, puts the focus on the news industry’s financial vulnerabilities. Across the world, for decades, big media relied on corporate or political funding to sustain themselves because the business of news simply isn’t profitable. The Indian government spends millions of dollars on advertisements in newspapers, TV channels and web portals, including NDTV.
The acquisition laid bare NDTV’s financial struggles from 2009, when it took a massive loan of over $50 million from a private lender. The agreement allowed the private lender to freely convert warrants into equity stakes and hand them over to any person they nominate. The loan was reportedly funded by the Ambani-owned Reliance. Speculation about an Adani takeover has been doing the rounds for over a year.
This year, Adani set up a media subsidiary, AMG Media Networks, which hired veteran journalist Sanjay Pugalia as its CEO and editor-in-chief. Pugalia called the NDTV acquisition a “significant milestone.”
“[AMG Media Networks] seeks to empower Indian citizens, consumers and those interested in India, with information and knowledge,” his statement said. “We look forward to strengthening NDTV’s leadership in news delivery.”
Industry expert Deepak Shenoy, who runs the investment research firm Capitalmind, said that the current takeover was a long time coming, and that calling it a “hostile takeover” ignores NDTV’s missteps. The acquisition should serve as a cautionary tale for media houses who take loans they can’t repay, he added.
“Big corporations will be aggressive with their strategic gains, and there’s a lesson to learn from media barons overleveraging,” he said. “If you take leverage, you have to bear the consequences.”
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