The People’s Union for Civil Liberties strongly condemns the raids by the CBI on 5th June 2017 on the residence and offices of Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika Roy, co-founders of NDTV. While it is a declared position of PUCL that under our Constitutional scheme, the rule of law is supreme and no individual or institution is above the law, there are nevertheless circumstances in the timing and manner of the raids conducted which raise serious concerns as to whether the raids are motivated and constitute a wilful abuse of law.
PUCL believes that it must not be lost sight of that the raids come on the heels of an incident on 1st June 2017 where Nidhi Razdan, Executive Editor, and primary anchor of news channel NDTV asked BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra, to leave her debate show ‘Left Right and Centre’ – a live broadcast show which covers current debates – after Patra made a derogatory statement about her channel.
PUCL has gone through the statement of the CBI dated 06.06.2017. PUCL believes that the statement seems merely an attempt to deflect criticism of the recent workings of the CBI. It is shocking that the FIR was registered and CBI raids were carried out without a preliminary inquiry, though the same is required as per the CBI Manual as well as the unanimous judgment of the 5 Judge Constitutional Bench decision of Lalita Kumari case (2014). The SC has pointed to the need of a preliminary enquiry in cases of allegations of corruption and where there is considerable delay in lodging complaints. In the present case, the allegations are about corruption over events that took place many years back.
It is also strange that while the case in question is apparently under the Prevention of Corruption Act, and has been registered against unknown employees of the ICICI Bank by a shareholder of ICICI, no raids have been conducted on the premises of the said Bank or its employees to find out who were involved or responsible for the alleged crime.
It is pertinent to point out that the CBI press release cited the Supreme Court judgment in the case of `Ramesh Gelli versus CBI’ (2016) 3 SCC 788, to justify its actions. In that case the SC held that Chairman/Managing Director/Executive Director or any other employee of a private bank are also “public servants” within the purview of the Prevention of Corruption Act (“PC Act”) in view of Section 46-A of the Banking Regulation Act 1949 which deems such persons to be public servants. However, it is strange that in a case under PC Act where the primary allegations have to be against such “public servants”, not one employee/director of ICICI Bank has been named, interrogated or arrested though the complaint is several years old, whereas the residence of Prannoy and Radhika Roy has been raided, within days of the above referred TV show incident.
It must be pointed out that while the CBI/ Police have powers to proceed under the PC Act against directors/employees of private banks, the said power has to be used after following due procedure of law and only after allegations in the complaint concerned are found to be amounting to/constituting a criminal offence, after conducting a preliminary enquiry inter alia.
It should be further noted that the CBI’s Statement states that the complaint against the promoters of NDTV is that they, in criminal conspiracy with unknown officials of ICICI Bank violated Section 19 (2) of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 and Master Circular DBOD No. Dir B90/13.07.05/98-99 dated 28.08.1998 of the Reserve Bank of India.
It is pertinent to mention that the offences under the Banking Regulation Act are against the Bank and/or its employees only; for violation of Sec. 19(2) of the Banking Regulation Act, as per Section 46 (4) of the Banking Regulation Act, the penalty is in the nature of a fine only, and not imprisonment.
What is very important to note here is that under the Banking Regulation Act, 1949, cognizance of the offences can only be taken in case of a complaint in writing by an officer of the Reserve Bank of India specially authorised to file such complaints. However, in this case no such complaint seems to have been lodged by an authorised officer of the RBI. To the contrary, the CBI statement explains that the complaint is lodged by a private person said to be a shareholder of ICICI Bank and NDTV. In such a situation, the CBI is bound by higher standards of transparency, accountability and responsibility, to explain their actions. This is particularly so given the nature of allegations and because the accused are well known media persons who are vulnerable to being targeted for false or motivated allegations and prosecutions on account of their professional work.
We would like to make it clear that PUCL is not against any fair and lawful investigation, carried out as per mandated procedures, where there is enough preliminary evidence to warrant prosecution. However, in the present scenario it appears that the CBI’s actions were neither based on standard procedures and practices nor as per court mandated guidelines. The CBI must act to uphold the rule of law under the Constitution and must not act based on directions of the political executive. This leads to the erosion of credibility and confidence about the impartiality, independence and fairness of a premier investigating agency such as the CBI, and has serious consequences.
In this context, the recent raids, clearly appears to be a case of political vendetta and deliberate harassment.
Last year, the government had imposed an unusual one-day ban on NDTV’s Hindi channel, on the grounds that it had disclosed sensitive information in its reporting on an insurgent attack on an Indian air base. The channel had protested, saying that its reporting went no further than any other channel’s and that it was entirely based on official briefings. It will be useful to remember here that NDTV is one of the few channels which had extensively covered the 2002 Gujarat carnage and had openly reported the allegations of complicity of the state machinery in allowing the killings to continue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was then the state’s chief minister and the present BJP President Amit Shah, a minister in his cabinet. Ravish Kumar, in his popular daily programme Prime Time on NDTV India, has also been a relentless critic of the government and the BJP, in his inimitable style of humour and sarcasm. All these appear to be the real reasons why the government has chosen to harass and malign NDTV, including by the present raid on the promoters of NDTV.
The PUCL has, ever since its inception during the Emergency, always vigorously maintained and emphasized that a free media is critical to democracy, as the inherent right to participate in decision-making is premised upon the freedom to obtain, communicate and discuss information. PUCL has always believed that it is of the greatest importance that the citizens be enabled to know what is happening in different regions, different sectors of the economy, and different sections of the society; and to listen to different and alternative approaches and critiques, so that they can effectively participate in the process of self-government. If facts cannot be freely presented and comments cannot be freely exchanged, there is no way in which the citizens can even attempt to hold the rulers to account. Our experience also suggests that a free and vigilant media is vital to restrain corruption and injustice at least to the extent that public opinion can be roused as a result of press investigations and comments. However it is precisely playing this independent and investigatory role in reporting of misdeeds of those in power which makes the media in India vulnerable to harassment, intimidation and threats by ruling party, political executive and bureaucracy. There are innumerable such attempts to muzzle, silence and defang the media that have occurred all across India in the last few decades.
Seen against this backdrop the raids on the Prannoy and Radhika Roy co-founders of NDTV is reminiscent of the Emergency era and a chilling reminder of the price to be paid for questioning the government and ruling elite.
PUCL must highlight that this year, India slipped three places, to 136th in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by `Reporters Without Borders’, which highlighted concerns that so called Hindu nationalists were “trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought”.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties condemns the efforts of the present government to suppress the voice of its critics in the media through malicious prosecution on the one hand, and vicious labeling of “anti nationalism” and “seditious” on the other. It stands with the NDTV and others of the print and electronic media who are courageously bringing uncomfortable but very real issues like crony capitalism, repression of minorities, atrocities on dalits and adivasis, agricultural crisis, environmental devastation and the impoverishment of the working class to the attention of the citizens of the country.
PUCL also decries the motivated use of the enforcement and intelligence agencies against those who venture to hold or express opposing opinions, which will lead only to breakdown and loss of faith in the Rule of Law. The PUCL also believes that such misuse of the powers under criminal justice system given to independent agencies such as the CBI weakens them, and is not in the long term interest of the nation.
PUCL appeals to journalists, media houses and ordinary citizens not to remain quiet but to stand up and assert the importance of independence of the media and oppose any and all attempts to muzzle and silence dissent. At stake is the possibility of a new version of `Emergency’ versus protecting, promoting and deepening democracy.
Mr. Ravi Kiran Jain, President, PUCL
Dr. V. Suresh, General Secretary, PUCL