Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Corporate censorship pressure pushes EPW Editor out of his job

NB: Readers should make copies of these two articles and store them for circulation. The first describes investigations by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) on tax evasion, and asks why the Union Finance Ministry is reluctant to perform its allotted functions and safeguard the Government's financial interests. The second asks why the rules relating to special economic zones (SEZs) were altered in August 2016, enabling the Group to claim a large sum of government money.

Why not answer the queries and remove all doubts? Why suppress the articles? The Sangh Parivar regularly circulates slanderous material against Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, etc, via various fronts on the Net, and does so in the name of free speech. Why can't Messrs Adani refute the allegations contained in these articles by facts and reasonable argument? The habit of silencing critics by threats is a totalitarian practice, no different from other varieties of tyranny. Totalitarian capitalism is an ever-growing reality today and the sooner we realise this the better. DS

Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta became the first top-level editorial casualty of corporate India’s increasing tendency to file multi-crore defamation cases as a means of countering critical reporting, resigning after the directors of the trust which runs the storied journal ordered him to take down two articles on the Adani group.

Last month, Adani Power Ltd. sent a letter via its lawyers to EPW, the article’s four authors (which included Thakurta) and Sameeksha Trust, which owns and runs the journal. The lawyer’s letter demanded that immediate steps be taken to “remove/delete and unconditionally retract” two articles ‘Did the Adani Group Evade Rs 1,000 Crore in Taxes?’(January 14, 2017) and ‘Modi Government’s Rs 500-Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group’ (June 24, 2017) – that they said were defamatory and harmful to the reputation of their client. The letter said that unless this was done, “our clients shall be constrained to take such action as they may be advised”.

On Tuesday, the Sameeksha Trust board, which met in Delhi, ordered the editorial department to take the two articles down (alongside which Thakurta had also posted a copy of the Adani letter and a legal response by EPW). Thakurta resigned soon after the meeting. He told The Wire that he was looking forward to spending more time with his family in Delhi. EPW’s editorial offices are in Mumbai. Sameeksha Trust chair Deepak Nayyar was not available for comment, nor were other board members that The Wire reached out to: historian Romila Thapar, political scientist Rajeev Bhargava and sociologist Dipankar Gupta. It is understood that the trust will issue a statement on the latest developments on July 20. Both articles were republished by The Wire at the time of their original publication in EPW and will continue to be available:
Adani’s lawyers have informed Thakurta that they will be writing to The Wire as well demanding the articles be taken don. Founded in 1949 as the Economic Weekly, EPW took on its current name in 1966 and is one of India’s most respected publications, straddling scholarship and political commentary. Thakurta, a highly regarded business journalist and political commentator, took over the editorship in January 2017 from C. Rammanohar Reddy, who ran the journal for over a decade.

SLAPP down criticism, investigative reporting: The Adani letter is an example of what media analysts and lawyers call ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’ – or SLAPPs. In a 2015 editorial calling for the United States to emulate California and enact a federal law protecting free speech against encroachment by powerful interests, the Los Angeles Times pithily described
what SLAPPs are all about: “A deep-pocketed corporation, developer or government official files a lawsuit whose real purpose is to silence a critic, punish a whistleblower or win a commercial dispute.” What is notable about the Sameeksha Trust’s decision to pull the plug on the two articles is that Adani had only sent them a lawyer’s letter and not filed an actual case despite the expiry of the 48-hour deadline mentioned in the letter. Such legal letters threatening expensive and time-consuming litigation are increasingly being used by large corporations to intimidate editors, proprietors, journalists and writers and prevent them from shining a light on allegations of wrongdoing. In India, companies with deep pockets can not only resort to filing for civil defamation and seeking crores of rupees in damages, they are also free to invoke the law of criminal defamation, under which an accused person can be imprisoned. Last year, a petition to strike down criminal defamation as unconstitutional was rejected by the Supreme Court, making India one of the only democracies in the world to still retain the draconian law on its statute books.

Targeting The Wire: The National Democratic Alliance politician and MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar filed two defamation suits worth Rs 10 crore each against The Wire in March 2017 for having published articles that focused on his new media venture, Republic TV, and the potential conflict of interest involved in his serving on the parliament’s standing committee for defence while owning companies that are involved in the military sphere. Unusually, Chandrashekhar managed to secure an ex parte injunction from a local court in Bengaluru for the two articles to be taken down, without The Wire even being heard.

Chandrashekhar’s suits are currently being challenged by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, the not-for-profit company that publishes The WireThe Wire‘s editors have also been summoned by the chief judicial magistrate in Aizawl, Mizoram, following the registration of a criminal defamation case by E-Cool Gaming Solutions – a company linked to ZEE TV owner Subhash Chandra – for an article published in The Wire based on a CAG report critical of the functioning of one of his group companies involved in the lottery business in the northeastern state.