On May 10, when Ravi Prakash, the Chairman and CEO of media behemoth TV9, reached his office at Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills, a large team of police personnel were waiting for him at the entrance. They told him that a shareholders’ meeting was underway and that he would be taken into custody if he tried to enter the building. Ever since, Ravi Prakash has not been able to enter his office, neither has he been able to go home as two cases have been registered against him for a series of charges like forgery, cheating and criminal conspiracy. He was removed as CEO and all his powers revoked, following a decision taken at the shareholders meeting.
Having laid the foundations for TV9 15 years ago, Ravi Prakash scaled it up into a massive TV news company with 8 news channels, including a Hindi channel it recently launched. Today, he finds himself locked out of the company.
Ravi Prakash’s unceremonious exit from TV9 did not happen overnight, and can be traced back to August 24, 2018, when a share purchase agreement was signed between a consortium of investors, fronted by Krishna Reddy of Megha Engineering and Infrastructure limited, and Srini Raju, who was then the majority shareholder in Associated Broadcasting Private Limited (ABCL), the promoting company of TV9.
The deal between ABCL and the consortium, Alanda Media Private Limited, was valued at Rs 450 crore, giving long-time investor Srini Raju an exit from the company. Alanda Media picked up 90.5% stake in ABCL, while Ravi Prakash held 8.25%.
Ravi Prakash now claims that Alanda’s takeover was intended to strip away his editorial and operational independence, and that he was kept in the dark about the involvement of a man he would have never sold his company to - Jupally Rameshwar Rao – an influential businessman in Telangana, owner of real estate company My Home Group and known to be close to various politicians including Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao.
Today, Rao owns 62% of Alanda, while Krishna Reddy holds 38%. Effectively, Rao controls TV9. But Ravi Prakash says he was led to believe that Reddy would be the majority shareholder and that he would continue to have the freedom to run the show at TV9.
“Rameshwar Rao had approached us once in 2016 to buy TV9. But I was against the idea. He has a political agenda, he is close to the Chief Minister of Telangana. He is also a follower of Chinna Jeeyar Swamy. He would have brought his political and ideological biases to the table and that is why I refused his offer in 2016,” Ravi Prakash told TNM.
The ongoing saga began when serial entrepreneur Srini Raju, who had invested in TV9 about a decade ago, wanted to offload his shares and exit the venture. Even as he was scouting for potential investors, Krishna Reddy approached Ravi Prakash with an offer that seemed attractive. “Srini Raju never interfered in our editorial and that is what I wanted from a new investor. Krishna Reddy told me that he and three of his businessmen friends from Mumbai would invest and own 20% each. He said that this consortium would have no interest in the editorial and will let me function independently. I made him meet Srini Raju and the deal was signed on August 24, 2018,” he says.
Ravi Prakash claims that he did not know of Rameshwar Rao’s involvement in Alanda media and that he would not have agreed to the deal if he knew of his involvement. When pointed out that even newspaper reports on August 27, 2018, had mentioned Rameshwar Rao’s involvement in the deal, Ravi Prakash feigned ignorance said that he was told about it three days before the deal.
“The original deal was between me and Krishna Reddy only. My Home Group was nowhere in the deal till about 3 days before signing of agreement. Even on the signing date, My Home had a very minor stake in the deal. When I questioned Krishna Reddy later, he said there was pressure on him and so he yielded and sold the shares of Alanda Media to Rameshwar Rao. I was devastated, I asked him how he could bring someone from the backdoor,” Ravi Prakash says.
When asked why he did not verify who the real backers of the deal were, Ravi Prakash says he went by trust.
Editorial interference, criminal cases
The interference in the channels’ editorial started soon after, alleges Ravi Prakash. “In September 2018, Income Tax officials raided Congress leader Revanth Reddy. I was in USA and received a call from my newsroom that Rameshwar Rao’s son and brother were there dictating how we should cover it. Since Revanth Reddy was their political foe, they wanted to utilise the raids to finish his reputation completely,” Ravi Prakash says.
Later, Ravi Prakash claims, that Rao called him to his house to discuss the formation of an editorial committee, which he opposed. “He wanted to take over the editorial content of the channel,” Ravi Prakash claims.
Things went from bad to worse after the Intermediate Exam results were announced on April 18, 2019, says Ravi Prakash. “The real conflict started after the inter exam results. They were not happy about us running a story against the government. They have a clear political and business agenda. I said this is not about a government, but about the failure of a system. More than 20 students had committed suicide, and should we turn a blind eye to it?”
As the conflict grew and the state was simmering with tension, a case was filed against Ravi Prakash by the Cyber Crime department of Cyberabad Police Commissionerate on April 24, based on a complaint from P Kaushik Rao, Director of Alanda Media. In a statement, Alanda alleged that "Ravi Prakash and Chief Financial Officer KVN Murthy had malafide intention of not allowing Alanda, the majority shareholder, to participate in the management of ABPCL through its new directors."
Yet another forgery case was filed on April 30. Alanda says that it nominated four persons to be appointed as Directors on the board of ABCPL. The four were duly appointed as per provisions of the Companies Act and were also approved by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry. However, Ravi Prakash and Murthy did not file the DIR-12 form with the Registrar of Companies (ROC) to register this appointment and also “removed the Company Secretary by forging his signature” with ‘malafide’ intent, Alanda alleges.
Ravi Prakash however claims that the name of Directors was not added as the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) had passed multiple restraining orders against TV9 group selling its shares or properties until further instructions. The NCLT’s order were to do with yet another unrelated corporate battle relating to TV9, between Srini Raju and Mauritius-based investment firm SAIF III, which had once invested money in TV9, had hoped to pick up a stake in TV9 in return for interest-free loans but that had not fructified.
“Why should I forge anyone’s signature? I even signed the Board Resolutions to appoint 4 New Directors to the board of ABCL, which were sent to Ministry of Information & Broadcasting for approval. However, when NCLT passed another restraining order on January 17, 2019, we requested the new investors to hold off making any changes to the Board. We never opposed them from coming on to the board,” he says.
Ravi Prakash in turn also alleges that the Company Secretary was ‘kidnapped’ by Alanda Media. “The Company Secretary, Devender Agarwal, resigned on March 28. Also, the NCLT’s restraint order was in place. These people kidnapped him on April 27 and tried to make him login to the ROC website to upload new directors at 2:30 AM in the morning. ROC site said he does not have access,” says Ravi Prakash.
Even so, with Rao owning majority of the company now, there is little Ravi Prakash can do to retain editorial control. He laments, “We built TV9 as a channel that is not affiliated to any party. Unlike other channels in Telugu, we never promoted superstition or horoscopes. Rameshwar Rao will change all that and I believe that the effort of 15 years is at a standstill. They want to implicate me in more cases, and put me in jail. I am a journalist and I built something commendable. I want to sit in the TV9 office and run the show. But if I can't do that, then I will build something from scratch again.”
With inputs from Shilpa Ranipeta