On September 27, the information and broadcasting ministry notice to Bengali news channel Kolkata TV, asking it to respond in seven days as to why its teleport license should not be cancelled.
“Due to the denial of fresh security clearance, the permission to uplink and downlink the TV channel Kolkata TV, teleport at Kolkata and DSNG vans cannot be renewed,” the notice said. Security clearance had been denied by the ministry of home affairs.
A week before, on September 22, the Enforcement Directorate had summoned Kolkata TV’s principal owner, Kaustuv Ray, in connection with a loan default case. Roy was questioned for seven hours straight at the ED’s Kolkata office.
At Kolkata TV’s office in Poddar Court in Kolkata, Kaustuv Roy spoke to this reporter about the latest developments regarding his channel.
“In the last assembly election, our channel took a stand which was anti-BJP,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we have not given coverage to the BJP. We have covered all rallies by prime minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, and other leaders who came here for campaigning. But our editorial stand is anti-BJP, and we are clear about that.”
However, Ray’s proximity to senior ministers of the TMC is well-known. During the assembly election, he gave speeches on behalf of the party at their rallies. Soon after the West Bengal assembly election, he also met with Mukul Roy, who was the BJP’s national vice-president at the time.
“He wanted to return to the TMC. So, I made him speak to Mamata Banerjee,” Roy said. The chief minister asked me to bring him to the party office for joining. I accompanied him on the day he returned to the TMC.”
He continued, “I have nothing to hide. I am Kaustuv Ray. As an individual, I have a political identity. If you are targeting me, I don’t have a problem. I will fight it out, I won’t cow down. But why are you targeting my channel, which employs 322 people? Why drag them?”
Ray said the ED called him for questioning in connection with a three-year-old bank default case, which he’s currently repaying.
“I am paying my dues,” he said. “The bank has no complaints against me. Then why is the ED digging up an old case? In all likelihood, if everything goes well, I would be able to clear my entire outstanding debt in this case by the first quarter of 2024. I am neither Lalit Modi nor Nirav Modi that I will flee. My passport lapsed in 2020; I didn’t even renew it. Since 2015, I have not gone outside India.”
The ED also asked him where he was “getting the money to repay debts” and why he had gone to Purulia, Jhargram and North Bengal for “election campaigning”.
Ray emphasised that his politics are “separate” from his channel’s politics.
“I am not with the TMC. I am close to many leaders from TMC,” he said. “Same way, I have good relations with many leaders in CPIM, Congress and even BJP. Yes, during the Bengal election, I travelled to various districts and gave speeches against the BJP. I spoke from TMC's stage, I even spoke in the meetings organised by various civil society groups.”
Following the ED summons, Ray filed a petition at the CBI court stating that he was being harassed by the central agency. On October 4, the court directed the investigating officer in the case to “not take any coercive action” against Ray until his petition was heard.
But this wasn’t Ray’s first brush with the law. In 2015, a joint team of the Delhi police and Kolkata police arrested him in connection with the bank fraud case. This case was settled after the completion of payment.
The CBI also registered a case against him that year in connection to defaulting on loans, and chargesheeted him in 2017.
In 2018, he was arrested by the CBI on complaints of “economic fraud” lodged by several banks; this is the case in which the ED had summoned him as well. Ray claimed that of the two loans he defaulted on, one has been “completely repaid” and the other has been repaid to a “substantial portion”.
Politics with the BJP and TMC
While holding its “anti-BJP” line, hasn’t Kolkata TV been sympathetic in its coverage of the TMC over the past few years?
“I don’t agree with you,” said Ray. “Our channel does objective reporting based on facts...Do you know after the 2016 West Bengal assembly election, Mamata Banerjee’s government stopped our distribution for two years? Even now, will you say Kolkata TV is sympathetic towards the TMC?”
However, when the news broke about the information and broadcasting ministry’s show cause notice to Kolkata TV, one of the first people to respond on Twitter was TMC MP Derek O’Brien.
Soon after, leaders from across the opposition expressed solidarity with Kolkata TV, as did personalities from Bengal’s film and TV industry. Ray owns a production house and has produced a few Bengali movies in the past.
The BJP in Bengal has often butted heads with Kolkata TV. Last June, for instance, Ray’s hard-hitting interview with state president Dilip Ghosh went viral. The channel’s coverage of the Cooch Behar violence – Kolkata TV was one of the first to gain footage to show the – also gained a lot of traction.
Similarly, Suvendu Adhikari, the leader of the opposition in West Bengal, has often declined to answer questions posed to him by journalists from Kolkata TV. , he said, “You be silent. That chor [Ray] has taught him and sent him here."
After the election, Ray and Adhikari also took potshots at each other. When Adhikari declined to answer a Kolkata TV reporter, Ray said on air, “I think he is not educated enough, that’s why he doesn’t know how to speak...He has unleashed a few chamchas, their only job is to do propaganda on YouTube.”
In another incident, Adhikari told a Kolkata TV reporter that he belonged to a “channel of bootlickers”, or “chota chata channel”. Later, Ray said during a public gathering, “If I start doing active politics, he [Adhikari] will lock himself inside his house. He won’t be able to come out of his house.”
Rumour has it that it was Adhikari who finally complained about Ray to the BJP’s central leadership.
On his part, Ray describes his politics as aligning to the Left. He had been a member of the CPIM’s student wing during his college days and had a “very good relationship” with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee when the latter was chief minister.
Since then, however, he said he’s often been critical of the CPIM. “I believe in Left ideology politics,” he said. “But to be Left, you don’t have to be in CPIM or CPI or RSP.”
‘Difficult to do journalism in India’
Subhashis Moitra, who has been a journalist for over 30 years, told this reporter that from what he knows, the home ministry has not given a reason to deny Kolkata TV’s security clearance.
“So, prima facie, it suggests that because the channel is not toeing the central government line and is critical of their policies and leaders, the central government is trying to take revenge,” he said.
On whether Kolkata TV has any biases towards the TMC, Moitra said, “I don’t think they are biased towards the TMC. They are more critical than most of the other channels in Bengal. Unlike other channels, they had to suffer for being critical of the Mamata government as it went off the air for two years after the 2016 assembly election. For the past few years, they have been extremely critical of the Modi government..."
Senior journalist Suvojit Bagchi said it’s becoming “increasingly difficult to do journalism in India”.
“All parties have realised that in their territories, they can do anything to journalists and journalism, and no one is bothered,” he said. “It used to happen in Northeast India, Chhattisgarh, Kashmir. Now it’s true for any state; the administration threatens and harasses journalists who like to report facts, and so does the central administration. The safe ones are those who take the chief minister or prime minister’s side...Those who challenge power centres inevitably get into trouble.”
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