Delhi | February 22, 2018

India’s largest company Reliance Industries Ltd., which is owned by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, announced Thursday that it was taking over one of India’s largest media companies–Network 18 Media and Investments Ltd fours years ago.

The report claims that Ambani now owns more than 51 per cent of the NDTV shares through his associated companies and trading funds. It could be noted that the television network is facing many lawsuits presently and hence is comes off surprising that the industrialist would want to acquire it. NDTV’s fluctuating share value suggests that the company shares have been steadily bought. For the uninitiated, the NDTV share value was Rs 39 on September 4, it shot up to Rs 72 on October 11 and presently it is Rs 62.50.

Founder Prannoy Roy and wife Radhika owned 30 per cent shares about three months ago. Around 38 per cent shares were owned by Ambani’s allies and the remaining ones were held by minority shareholders. Now, the situation has changed completely as Ambani has seemed to mopped up a number of shares, increasing his stake to 51 per cent.

In 2015, 30% stake was indirectly owned by Mukesh Ambani.

Business or clout?

Reliance taking an active position in the media sector can be for two reasons. It may be because the corporate group sees a business opportunity; or the clout that the levers of media provide. The Anil Ambani Group explored the business opportunity with the acquisition of Adlabs in 2005 and a string of multiplexes and movie-making investments. It burnt its fingers and exited. This sector requires niche expertise.

The Reliance press release of January 2012 justified its entry into Network 18 as “Digital content from entertainment, news…and other genres will be a key driver to increase consumption of broadband.”
Reliance Jio has launched a few content offerings but independent producers offer a huge variety of entertainment and news content off the shelf. Should a telecom network like Jio be acquiring expensive news and entertainment sources which can only contribute to a fraction of the demand?

When you are the largest publicly traded company with a $51 billion turnover, you also need to build public perception in your favour. You have to guard your flanks; and when under attack, defend yourself. Network18, NDTV, Balaji Telefilms… There is more to come.


Network18 owns TV channels (including CNBC TV18, CNN-IBN, CNN Awaz), websites (,, magazines (including the license for Forbes India), entertainment channel (Colors, MTV and Homeshop Entertainment) among other businesses. RIL said it’s board approved funding of 4,000 crore rupees (or roughly $730 million) to Independent Media Trust (IMT), of which RIL is the sole beneficiary” for taking over Network18. (You can read the financial details of the deal here.)

Network18’s CEO, CFO and COO quit in the days preceding Thursday’s announcement. Earlier today the company’s founder and managing director Raghav Bahl and his wife, a director at the company, announced their exit as well, while there are strong rumors doing the rounds that the news division’s top editorial team too is on its way out. Indian newspaper Mint cited a few employees who described the situation as a “hostile” takeover.

Anger, panic and pandemonium aside, the takeover is a strategic move for RIL which is expected to launch its 4G network later this year and can use the wide range of content produced by Network18 to feed its telecom play. In its press release RIL said: “The acquisition will differentiate Reliance’s 4G business by providing a unique amalgamation at the intersection of telecom, web and digital commerce via a suite of premier digital properties.

This takeover, once combined with RIL’s telecom business, makes the combined group likely bigger than media baron Rupert Murdoch’s empire in India and bigger than any other media group in India. And that should raise some serous questions about it.

“If India’s biggest corporate conglomerate is also India’s biggest media company, what does it do to diversity of opinion, plurality of opinion, what it does do to unfavorable news coverage?” asks Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent journalist and teacher who was a member of the Press Council of India where he co-authored a piece on “Paid News: How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy.”

To be sure, India has several thousand newspapers and about 900 tv channels and a thriving social media. Despite that, there are only a handful of media companies that dominate the market and mainstream media still has a significant role in setting the agenda.

“What happens when big business interests get into the media business?” says Thakurta. “They influence what comes out into the public, what is heard and read…. [Suddenly] You have your large business groups, conglomerates determining what people read, hear, watch. It does raise concerns and questions about what happens to the voices of not just those who are contrary to RIL, but the marginalized?”

While the Network18 deal may be the biggest media deal in India, it is a very tiny part of the giant that is RIL. But the deal is important for other reasons, points out P. Sainath, an independent, award-winning journalist.

“It has the power to reach into every drawing room; the power to tell you what to read, see and think,” he says. “How will they [the Network18 journalists] have any chance of doing a decent story on the KG gas deal [where RIL has the rights to dig for gas and is in dispute with the government], the Radia tapes [taped telephone conversations between publicist Nira Radia and a former telecom minister and senior journalists where she’s lobbying on behalf of several big corporate clients], how will they cover any damn thing? The greater the monopolization and corporatization of media, the less the space for smaller voices, differing voices, dissenting voices.”

RIL made its first investment in Network18 in January 2012 with a minority stake in the company via IMT. At the time it said it was merely an investor, recalls Thakurta.

“Now that Chinese wall has come crashing down,” says Thakurta. “Earlier the people who were investors are now the people who call the shots.”

Critics of the deal have also raised concerns about how this will impact the media’s coverage of India’s newly elected government. India’s corporate sector endorsed–and donated to–Narendra Modi and the BJP’s election campaign. So what are the chances that media companies–owned by some of those same corporate houses–will encourage independent reporting of its favored Prime Minister and government?

“Once upon a time the media took its role to question people in power very seriously,” says Sainath. “Media was the adversary. It would take on those in positions of power, whether in government or the corporate sector. Time alone will tell how that adversarial role will exist under these sort of corporate deals.”

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