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The Omidyar Network: ‘Committed to a free media’, via two Indian companies too

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The Omidyar Network, which has been mentioned in the Paradise Papers revelations, has invested in the websites Scroll.in and Newslaundry.com.

The Paradise Papers revelations have put the spotlight on the Omidyar Network, a US-based early stage investor fund. The network was mentioned in the cache of 13.4 million documents, revelations about which were published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) Monday.

While the Omidyar Network has invested in over 60 companies in India in less than a decade, and sought to raise its investments in Indian companies to $350 million by 2020, two of the investments closest to founder Pierre Omidyar’s heart are in Scroll.in and Newslaundry.com.

Tracing the Omidyar Network

Omidyar founded the multinational e-commerce corporation eBay in 1995, and then turned maverick philanthropist. In 1998, he co-founded the Omidyar Foundation with wife Pam, with the aim of supporting non-profits. It was only in 2004 that the duo broadened their scope and formed the Omidyar Network to make investments in both for-profit companies and not-for-profit organisations.

Omidyar has routinely reaffirmed his commitment to free and independent media.

Incidentally, earlier this year, the Omidyar Network announced a $100 million commitment to support investigative reporting and fighting hate speech, and invested $4.5 million in ICIJ, which led the Paradise Papers investigation.

Investments in Scroll and Newslaundry

While the Omidyar Network’s investments in Scroll and Newslaundry were announced at the time they were made, they have not been reported so far in the context of the fresh leaks.

Both investments were made after Union minister Jayant Sinha completed his tenure as Omidyar’s director in December 2013. Sinha found his name in the leaks because of his association with the network before he became minister.

Asked by ThePrint to comment on the nature of the investments, Sinha distanced himself, saying: “Omidyar invested in these organisations after I left the firm on 31 December 2013.”

Scroll’s response

Scroll Media Inc., which runs a news portal under the name Scroll.in, had raised an undisclosed amount of funding from the Omidyar Network in 2014. At the time, Samir Patil, CEO of Scroll, was reported to have said: “We cannot disclose the deal size.”

“Our aim is to provide good quality content to readers across all platforms, including mobile and tablets. So, the funds will go towards enhancing our technology and increasing the pace of the editorial content,” he had said.

Patil declined to comment on the investments in the light of the new leaks, suggesting that Scroll had little to do with the new information.

Newslaundry’s response

Newslaundry, on the other hand, received funding from the network in 2016, “to expand its reportage and content production teams, leverage its existing content by increasing its exposure to a larger audience, and experiment with new formats of content creation”.

When approached for a response on the nature of the investment in Newslaundry, its Editor-in-Chief Madhu Trehan said in an email response: “Since you are doing a report on funds and companies, you would be aware that funds raised for equity are used at the discretion of the board of a company for the regular activities of a company from fixing the plumbing to paying professionals and overheads etc.”

“You are confusing tied aid or project grants with an equity investment. If you look at our website, you can see how much stake Omidyar Network owns in Newslaundry. It is up on our website. The amount raised and equity percentage is on what was then the FIPB website, and that is public information,” she said.

At the time of investment in 2016, in a public statement on its website, the Omidyar Network had said: “Our purpose in funding Newslaundry is to invest in a media organisation that is exploring innovative approaches to drive transparency and higher standards throughout the media landscape in India. We also hope that the learnings from Newslaundry’s journey to develop a new business model for independent news production will act as a blueprint for other organisations to follow, develop, and spread.”

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