The Central Bureau of Investigation on Monday carried out searches at the residence of NDTV founder Prannoy Roy after registering an FIR for causing an alleged loss of Rs 48 crore to ICICI Bank in a loan resettlement in 2009 and concealing from the SEBI and stock exchanges the pledging of shares for the loan.
The action of the CBI was termed by the NDTV as a "witch-hunt" and an attempt by the government to silence the media, a charge denied by the CBI spokesman who said the exercise has been undertaken after following due process of law.
The searches took place at two locations in Delhi, including the residence of Roy, and one each in Dehradun and Mussoorie.
According to CBI sources, the properties in Dehradun and Mussoorie are also owned by Roy.
The CBI, in its FIR, which is based on a complaint of Sanjay Dutt, a shareholder of ICICI Bank and NDTV, has named Roy, his wife Radhika Roy, NDTV India Pvt Limited, RRPR Holding Pvt Limited and unidentified officials of ICICI Bank.
A CBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed that the ambit of the probe could be extended and role of other shell companies could be ascertained.
The agency said while the Enforcement Directorate, the SEBI, the Income Tax department are looking into these allegations, the agency may focus on the source of the funds and alleged corruption.
In a statement, NDTV said the ruling party's politicians could not "stomach" the "independence and fearlessness" of NDTV's team.
"The CBI raid is merely another attempt at silencing the media," it said.
The channel said it was apparent that the CBI searches were a "witch-hunt" since the documents seized by the probe agency did not relate to the business of the promoters and NDTV.
Union Information and Broadcasting Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said there was no political interference in the CBI raids on Roy's properties and the law was taking its course.
"If somebody does something wrong simply because they belong to media, you cannot expect the government to keep quiet," Naidu told reporters.
The officials were doing their duty and there is no political interference in this, he said, adding that media was free and independent in the country.
"The CBI might have received some information. That is why they have taken action," Naidu said.
In Jaipur, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said that the government is committed to protecting the freedom of expression and freedom of the press and will also ensure that the law of the land prevails.
On the complainant, NDTV said, "This is a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press...The CBI has been compelled to file an FIR based on a shoddy complaint by a disgruntled former consultant at NDTV," it said while identifying him as ex-employee Sanjay Dutt.
The channel's statement said he had been making false allegations and filing cases in the courts of law. "So far, he has not obtained a single order from any of these courts," it said.
The complaint into ICICI bank loan case was filed on April 28, 2017 and the agency claimed to have carried out discreet verification for nearly a month before registering the FIR on June 2.
According to the allegations levelled by Dutt, there are three major irregularities -- a loss to ICICI resulting from reduction in interest rate for a Rs 350 crore loan, concealment from the SEBI and stock exchanges in pledging of shares at the time of taking loan and violation of Banking Regulations Act.
It has been alleged in the complaint, now part of the FIR, that in order to buy 20 per cent of the shares of NDTV from public in an open offer, RRPR Holdings had taken a loan of Rs 500 crore from India Bulls Pvt Limited.
The company took another loan of Rs 375 crore (disbursed Rs 350 crore) at 19 per cent per annum from ICICI Bank to repay the loan from Indiabulls.
To avail this loan, the Roys pledged their entire shareholding as collateral, it alleged.
The pledging was not reported to the SEBI, stock exchanges or to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the complainant alleged.
"It is alleged that such concealment was done as the creation of collateral of more than 61 per cent of the voting capital was in violation of Section 19(2) of the Banking Regulation Act. It should not have been more than 30 per cent," the CBI said.
Within 10 months, the company took another loan in two instalments -- Rs 350 crore and Rs 54 crore -- totalling Rs 404 crore from Vishwa Pradhan Commercial Pvt Limited and repaid Rs 350 crore to ICICI Bank, it said.
ICICI Bank which had given the loan at the rate of 19 per cent, allegedly reduced it to nine per cent at the time of resettlement, thus causing a loss of Rs 48 crore to it.
The bank did not insist on recovery of the entire loan amount even when the promoters had adequate source of funding, it said.
According to the Section 19(2) of the Banking Regulation Act, "No banking company shall hold shares in any company, whether as pledgee, mortgagee or absolute owner, of an amount exceeding thirty per cent of the paid-up share capital of that company or thirty per cent of its own paid-up share capital and reserves, whichever is less."
On the allegations mentioned in the CBI case, NDTV said the loan of Rs 375 crore taken from ICICI Bank -- which it was accused of not paying back -- had been repaid more than seven years ago.
It said an allegation of non-disclosure of pledging of shares to the market regulator SEBI was "incorrect and false".
"NDTV and its promoters have never defaulted on any loan to ICICI or any other bank. We adhere to the highest levels of integrity and independence," it said.
"No matter how much the politicians attack us -- we will not give up the fight for freedom and the independence of media in India," it added.
Condemning the CBI raids, Congress spokesperson Ajay Maken termed it as an attack on the freedom of the press.
Criticising the NDA government for its "pick and choose" policy while taking on the media houses, he said it is an attempt to create an atmosphere of terror and muzzle the voice of the fourth estate.
"It is a strong attack on the freedom of the Press and the Congress party strongly condemns it. We warn the central government that it should not try to hound and threaten the media," he said.
"We are standing with the media. If the need arises, we will use democratic means to oppose this action," he said, adding that the prime minister has used derogatory words like "bazaru" and a Union minister used the term "presstitutes" for the media.
Another senior Congress leader Anand Sharma criticised the Centre over the CBI raids by saying that it was "blatant abuse of power taking place in the country.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also condemned the CBI's search at the residence Roy and others terming it as an an attempt to "silence independent and anti-establishment voices".
"We strongly condemn raids on Roy and NDTV group. Its an attempt to silence independent and anti-establishment voices," Kejriwal tweeted.
NDTV also informed the SEBI about the raids in which the company denied any wrongdoings. They also attached a certificate of ICICI bank which stated that all the loans had been cleared.