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An Indian tycoon’s bid for a broadcaster raises concerns about media freedom

#Indian #tycoons #bid #broadcaster #raises #concerns #media #freedom

An Indian billionaire close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attempting to buy a broadcaster believed to be the last major critical voice on television, stoking fears about media freedom in the world’s largest democracy.

Under Modi, India has slipped 10 spots to 150 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom rankings, with critical reporters often ending up behind bars and being prosecutedSocial media by supporters of the ruling BJP.

Gautam Adani – Asia’s richest person with holdings ranging from Australian coal mines to India’s busiest ports – announced late Tuesday that his firm had indirectly acquired a 29 percent stake in NDTV and would bid for a further 26 percent.

NDTV said the move came “without any discussion” with the broadcaster “or the approval of NDTV’s founders,” journalist Radhika Roy and economist Prannoy Roy.

Its two channels, one in Hindi and one in English, stand out among India’s myriad rolling news channels for inviting government critics and their hard-hitting reporting.

It has already been hit by a string of legal cases that its owners said were the result of its reporting.

On Wednesday morning, an NDTV staffer told AFP that there was a “general sense of shock and disbelief” in the newsroom after the announcement.

“We first found out about the takeover through other news agency flashes and channels, and then all hell broke loose,” the employee said, asking for anonymity.

“People are still trying to figure out what happened and what’s going to happen. There is a sense of uncertainty as it is only a matter of time before new management takes over.”

Geeta Seshu, founder of the Free Speech Collective, an independent organization campaigning for press freedom, said that “the space for independent journalism has shrunk at an alarming rate in recent years.”

“The brave few journalists who continue to provide information are also fighting court cases, being held in jail for long periods without bail, being assaulted or permanently silenced,” Seshu told AFP.

– Self-made billionaire –

Seshu said that while NDTV has been “struggling” commercially for some time, “the nature of this acquisition is shocking given the naked display of economic and political strength.”

The Adani Group’s closeness to the government is “hardly a secret,” she added.

Adani, 60, overtook his Indian compatriot Mukesh Ambani this year to become Asia’s richest man with a net worth of $139 billion, behind Jeff Bezos and ahead of Bill Gates, according to Forbes.

Modi and Adani both hail from the western state of Gujarat, and the latter’s conglomerate has expanded aggressively in recent years, including into new sectors such as airports and renewable energy.

But this growth into capital-intensive companies has raised alarm, with Fitch Group’s CreditSights warning on Tuesday that the group was “severely indebted.”

Ambani’s wealth and influence have also grown under Modi – he now owns more than 70 media outlets, which are followed by at least 800 million Indians, according to Reporters Without Borders.

That includes a majority stake in Network18, one of the country’s largest media conglomerates, which owns several leading broadcasters.

– “oligarchs” –

NDTV’s integrity is a bright spot in a media landscape threatened by increasing corporate scrutiny, said P. Sainath, the founder and editor of the grassroots reporting network People’s Archive of Rural India.

“They really stand out under the circumstances and under the pressure they’ve been working under,” he said.

Hartosh Singh Bal, a journalist at Caravan magazine – a rare critical voice among print media – said the acquisition could draw the curtain on “the only remaining channel that could be described as partially independent”.

“Government influence over the media is growing. The control of what I call oligarchs – the Adanis and the Ambanis – is also growing and will continue to grow,” he told AFP.

“This (acquisition) means there is almost no independent media left and the shrinking space is extremely dangerous.”

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