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Adani Group ‘SLAPP’ Pushes EPW Editor Out of His Job

Worried about the threat of an expensive lawsuit by one of India’s biggest corporate houses, the trustees running the journal ordered the removal of an article critical of Adani Power Ltd.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who resigned as editor of the Economic & Political Weekly (left), and Gautam Adani, promoter of the Adani group, whose legal notice precipitated Thakurta’s exit from the celebrated journal.

New Delhi: 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 an article 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” an article  ‘Modi Government’s Rs 500-Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group’ (June 24, 2017) that they said was defamatory and harmful to the reputation of their client. The letter also objected to the publication of an earlier article,‘Did the Adani Group Evade Rs 1,000 Crore in Taxes?’ (January 14, 2017), but did not specifically ask for it to be removed.

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 article 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:

Did the Adani Group Evade Rs 1,000 Crore in Taxes?
Modi Government’s Rs 500-Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group

Adani’s lawyers have also written to The Wire demanding the second article be taken down.

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 2016 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 Wire.

The 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.

Note 1: The story has been updated to note that The Wire has received a letter from Adani’s lawyers demanding that the article by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta et al. be taken down from its website.

Note 2: Though the legal letter from the Adanis attacked two articles written by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta et al, it asked for only the second, ‘Modi Government’s Rs 500-Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group’, to be taken down. In an earlier version of this article, it was incorrectly stated that both articles have been taken down. It is, in fact, only the one the Adanis demanded that was removed from the EPW site.

  • Anjan Basu

    A sad day in the history journalism in independent India. For a very large number of Indians, EPW had, over the years, come to be identified with professional integrity and journalistic honesty. For such a respected institution to cave in so easily — at what as yet was no more than a hint of trouble — is truly tragic. And it is a somewhat chilling commentary on the times we are living in today!

  • Amitabha Basu

    First, Rammanohar Reddy quit as Editor of EPW last year. We were relieved when Paranjoy Guhathakurta replaced him, for we believed, and subsequently were vindicated in our belief, that EPW was in safe hands as the vanguard of progressive thought it has been for the past 50 years. But why did the board of trustees, comprising respected individuals like Deepak Nayyar and Romila Thapar, cave in to a threat from the infamous Adani ? Or were they too overruled by some people who were pressurised beyond endurance ? The story needs to be unravelled. Paranjoy had no choice but to resign when the key articles were taken down by EPW. Earlier, he had been threatened by a huge lawsuit by Mukesh Ambani over the revelations in his book ‘Gas Wars’, but he carried on his work of exposure and clarification, so he is not a person who will bend easily before threats from these infamous big business tycoons.

    • Anjan Basu

      Yes, the Sameeksha trust owes to us all an explanation as to why they had to do what they did, namely, ask Guhathakurta to take down his articles. If what we know about Sachin Chaudhury, EPW’s ( or rather, the Economic Weekly’s) founder editor, is right, he would have been a very disappointed man today. I wonder what EPW old-timers like Ashok Mitra have to say on this.

  • Sam

    Yet another nail in the coffin of freedom of press, a case of “race to bottom of the pile” as if occupying 136th rank in Freedom of Press index was not enough! If this can happen in Worlds largest democracy, then this will go down in the history as a glaring example how democratic checks and balances can be systematically destroyed! Even pre-independence press enjoyed better freedom.

  • Anjan Basu

    You mean, “… the triumph of the ‘development’ lobby over environmentalists and the common man …”, don’t you?

  • Anjan Basu

    Very sensible suggestion! I have already shared these articles with many of my friends and acquaintances. Let people at least know what has been happening around us.

  • Anjan Basu

    But surely matters of great public interest should feature in a serious analytical journal that focuses on contemporary affairs? And after all, EPW stands for ( and is the abbreviated form of) the ‘Economic & Political Weekly’. It had started off as the ‘Economic Weekly’, but later decided that it should be an economic as well as political journal. Besides, these articles were not simply investigative journalism, either. They dealt with an important aspect of India’s political economy. At least, that is how people like me look at them.

  • Anjan Basu

    Yes, honest, serious journalism can be an expensive ( and also a risky) business, and the EPW is not only about journalism. But don’t you think that the Sameeksha Trust should at least have responded to the Adani missive, seeking to know how and in what manner were these articles inaccurate/ false and, therefore, slanderous? It is that the Editor was asked to take down the articles at the first murmur of protest, so to say, which rankles so much. A lowly, relatively unknown journal would perhaps have been justified in behaving with such alacrity when confronted with a corporate house’s musclemen. EPW should have known better than panic at the first sign of a controversy.

  • Anjan Basu

    You are absolutely right.There is no question that journalists should be accountable for what they put out in the public domain daily. In fact, it is the apparently complete lack of accountability that is the worst malaise of our journalism today, whether it is print or audio-visual ( or social network- based) journalism. But was it not expected of the EPW trustees that they first ask questions of the Adanis’s lawyers with regard to what was inaccurate or plain wrong about these articles? After all, they were disowning their Editor, no less.