By Srishti Malhotra
Edited by Shambhavi Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
In May 2014, the Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) board approved an investment of Rs. 4000 crore into India Media Trust (IMT), of which RIL is the sole beneficiary to acquire the properties of Network 18 Media, including its subsidiary TV 18 Broadcast Ltd. This makes Mukesh Ambani India’s largest media baron. Within days of the takeover, Chief Executive Officer B. Sai Kumar, Chief Operating Officer Ajay Chacka and Chief Financial Officer RDS Bawa quit the company. Ambani’s position can be compared to that of Rupert Murdoch’s, who controls two-thirds of the newspaper market in Australia and one-third in Britain. Apart from this he owns Star satellite service and Fox network, book publishing companies in Australia and the US, Festival Records, 20th Century Fox, as well as interests in computer software, offshore oil and gas and air transport.
The amount of attention that this issue has received in the country has been almost negligible. Network 18 includes TV channels, web content sites and e-commerce sites. The TV channels included are CNBC-TV18, CNBC Awaaz, CNBC-TV18 Prime HD, CNN-IBN, IBN7 and IBN-Lokmat. Web content includes moneycontrol.com, ibnlive.com, firstpost.com and cricketnext.com. The e-commerce sites under its ambit include Homeshop 18 and bookmyshow.com. TV18 also operates a joint venture with Viacom, called Viacom18, which houses a portfolio of popular entertainment channels – Colors, Colors HD, MTV, Comedy Central, Vh1, Nick, Sonic, Nick Jr. /Teen Nick and Viacom18 Motion Pictures, the group’s filmed entertainment business. Network 18 also publishes Forbes magazine in India apart from others like Overdrive and Intelligent computing Chip.
Reliance explained its decision as something that helps it create synergies in the 4G high speed data transfer space. However, the decision had been expected since Network 18 had been suffering losses and its principal promoter Raghav Bahl was looking for a company that would bail him out. Raghav Bahl and his wife quit the company, making it evident that the de facto ownership rests with Ambani.
In a cleverly-orchestrated deal, two years ago RIL through IMT had given a RS. 1700 crore loan in the form of optionally convertible debentures to Raghav Bahl’s investment companies as he wanted to acquire stakes in the regional channels of Hyderabad-based Eenadu group. Eenadu owns the largest selling Telugu newspaper in Andhra Pradesh and in Telangana, apart from some ETV channels.
The acquisition of Network 18 and TV 18 came about when the debt was converted into equity by Bahl. Before Bahl bought a stake in Eenadu, Ambani had already invested Rs 2600 crore over a period of time to acquire100% stake in regional news channels like ETV Uttar Pradesh, ETV Madhya Pradesh, ETV Bihar and ETV Urdu, besides regional entertainment channels like ETV Marathi, ETV Kannada, ETV Bangla, ETV Oriya and ETV Gujarati. He had also acquired a 49 per cent stake each in Telugu channels ETV Telugu and ETV Telugu News. Bahl in turn bought 100 per cent stakes in ETV’s regional news channels, 50 per cent in ETV’s regional entertainment channels and 24.5 per cent in the two Telugu channels, through Network18.
This in effect means that RIL now owns media entities that are spread out across the country both in terms of geography and regions and in terms of the genres that they represent. The corporate conglomerate will be able to influence public opinion in a monopolistic fashion implying that content or that does not promote its self-interest could be censored beyond control. The ‘public good’ nature of media content in a democracy will be taken away with plurality of opinions being sacrificed. Mukesh Ambani was named in connection with the Nira Radia tapes case (Nira Radia lobbied for various corporate clients with former telecom minister A.Raja), and RIL is in dispute with the government over the KG basin gas reserves. Moreover, Arvind Kejriwal as Delhi Chief Minister launched an attack on RIL ordering an investigation into gas pricing, saying that the company had created an artificial shortage of gas, so as to be able to charge a higher price for it. The chances of news items such as these being reported on these news channels or on the online platforms are minimal, and a discussion or debate on these is out of question.
In the absence of restraints on cross-media ownership, the heterogeneity of opinion in a democratic country like ours will be compromised. This could be fatal in volatile phases in the country like during elections where the content the media chooses to highlight has a direct correlation with the sentiment of the people of the country towards the poll candidates. The ‘Modi wave’ which was, in effect, created by the media is testimony to the fact. News and television media can be influenced by hiring editors who follow a certain (pro-RIL, of course) journalistic line and the reporting on issues is done within the moral compass envisaged by these. The voice of dissent, the voice of open debate, the voice of varied viewpoints is at risk in the country and unless this ‘commodification’ of news is prevented in future, we run a serious risk of losing the freedom of the 5th estate in our country.
Srishti Malhotra is pursuing M.A. Economics at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU. She graduated in economics from University of Delhi. Subjects that interest her the most are macroeconomics, international economics and finance. Dance is the passion of her life and she is a trained dancer in western styles .Her future plans include travelling the world and learning to play the drums.