Credit - Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME
New Delhi Television, or NDTV, began as a weekly bulletin in 1989, bringing news from around the world to Doordarshan, the Indian public broadcaster that aired on the television inside every household. Soon, it grew into India’s first and largest private network, producing news, current affairs, and entertainment for a largely English-speaking Indian audience.
Since it was first founded by husband and wife Prannoy and Radhika Roy, NDTV has changed ownership many times—including this week, when a hostile takeover bid launched by Gautam Adani, Asia’s richest man who is worth $130 billion, gained more ground. In August, Adani’s new media venture AMG Media Networks announced that it had indirectly acquired a 29% stake in the company and would make an open offer for another 26%. The Roys, who had long resisted the billionaire’s control, accused him of taking over without consent or consultation and resigned from the board on Tuesday.
Experts say this move marks the endgame for independent media in India, leaving the country’s biggest television news channels in the hands of billionaires who have strong ties to the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. In 2014, Mukesh Ambani, another Modi-friendly billionaire, pulled a similar move and acquired Network18, one of India’s largest media companies.
“NDTV stood out as the last channel that was trying to be independent, as far as this government is concerned,” says Suhas Chakma, the Director of the Rights and Risks Analysis Group in New Delhi.
NDTV became known for its trailblazing news talk shows that established election vote analysis on Indian television. In the 1990s, it struck a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Star Network and ventured into entertainment and lifestyle. Sanjay Pinto, one of the network’s earliest journalists, described it as having a “distinct, ‘first-come’ advantage.”
“Being the first, private national English broadcaster made many of us household names and recognizable faces across the country,” Pinto wrote in his book, My NDTV Days. “There was no shouting or screaming on Prime Time. In those half-hour bulletins, pan-India stories from across India were aired.”
Today, the network claims to have some 35 million followers across its television and online platforms. According to a study conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 75% of Bharatiya Janata Party supporters and 81% of all other political supporters trust NDTV as a source of news and information. This year, the channel also declared its most-profitable result in over a decade.
But the revenues barely make a dent in Adani’s sprawling conglomerate of businesses, which are worth $260 billion and make him the world’s third-richest man, right behind Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Instead, the billionaire is harboring other ambitions for NDTV: “Why can’t you support one media house to become independent and have a global footprint?” he told the Financial Times.
Many question what Adani’s vision for media independence might look like, considering his vocal support for Modi. In the past, this relationship has seen his business not only align with the Hindu nationalist government’s vision for India but also grow overnight as the country’s biggest private operator of ports, airports, and coal mines.
It also clashes with what NDTV is best known for: being a vocal critic of the government. In recent years, the broadcaster, along with other critical independent outlets and journalists, has faced a slew of tax raids, lawsuits, social media trolls, and arrests. In 2020, Amnesty International was forced to shut down operations in India after the Indian government froze its bank accounts. India—often called the world’s largest democracy—now ranks 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, having dropped by another ten places in the last year.
“If you look at all the other Indian media houses, they now tend to cozy up to the government and be spokespersons for the party,” says Chakma from the Rights and Risks Analysis Group.
Indian television news channels are particularly notorious for their panel discussions, with experts who toe the government line and praise Modi’s initiatives often descending into shouting matches. It’s particularly worrying for media analysts like Chakma, given the reach of television news and the power it still yields over the national debate in India. “With this takeover, there’s no other platform left for independent journalism except for the internet, but large swaths of the country still watch television news,” he says.
During the general election in 2014, NDTV’s website received 16.5 billion hits in a single day, leading the Modi administration to look for ways to decrease the channel’s influence. According to some reports, it pulled nearly all government advertising from the network—what most Indian TV networks primarily rely on for their revenue as the government is still the country’s biggest advertiser.
Along with the acquisition of NDTV, Adani’s AMG Media Network has a stake in the business news publication BQ Prime, formerly known as Bloomberg Quint. Adani has said his push into media is a “responsibility” rather than a business opportunity.
“Independence means if the government has done something wrong, you say it’s wrong,” he told the Financial Times. “But at the same time, you should have courage when the government is doing the right thing every day. You have to also say that.”
It’s a sign that the government has been successful in creating a “nationalism narrative,” says Chakma. “Earlier, we used to talk about the public interest, but now we talk about the majority interest,” he says. “And the majority interest is that you can’t criticize the government, irrespective of what it does.”
Still, he contended that there was a huge public appreciation for outlets like NDTV; otherwise, the network wouldn’t have survived. With the next general election coming up in 2024, the latest acquisition brings into question whether the space for critical coverage—as well as air time given to opposition parties—will also shrink.