Freedom of Speech and Expression Cannot Be Compromised by Threats and SLAPPs

How can expressing an opinion on the merit or demerit of an investment be deemed defamatory by the Adanis?

Last week, the Adani Group filed a Rs 100-crore civil defamation case against The Wire, seeking the removal of an article on the website and demanding an injunction against any further write ups on the subject simply on the ground that it was defamatory of the Adani Group.

The article merely raises questions about the economic wisdom of public sector oil companies like IOC and GAIL investing 49% equity stake in an LNG  terminal project in Odisha promoted by the Adanis. Similarly, IOC has separately taken 50% stake in an LNG terminal project in Gujarat called GSPC LNG, which is a joint venture between the Adanis and Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation(GSPC).

The Wire article raises a simple and commonsensical question: why should public sector undertakings use taxpayer money to pick up a 49% stake when it could have full management control by picking up a 51% controlling interest in the venture?

Investing upto 49% in the equity and letting the private player control the project does raise questions as to what the government or the PSU is particularly gaining out of it.

A former chairman of IOC, who wished not to reveal his identity, provided The Wire with his expert view that IOC does not gain any strategic advantage by investing 49% of the share capital without any management control in the Adani venture. We feel his views carry weight as he has helmed IOC and understands its interests as much as the present management.

Therefore, how can expressing an opinion on the merit or demerit of an investment be deemed defamatory by the Adanis, who are private sector partners with full control of the project? In any case, it is really for the government of India or the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, which owns the oil PSUs, to answer the questions in regard to the merit of such investments. Therefore, it is odd that the Adanis should file a defamation case against The Wire.

Also, public-private partnership projects, especially in the infrastructure sectors, are routinely discussed and debated in the media because of their complex nature, and government auditors, including the constitutional body CAG, regularly and mandatorily examine these projects. In recent years, public-private partnership projects in roads, airport, oil exploration and infrastructure have been the subject of robust media commentary and debate.

Therefore, we believe the civil defamation suit from the Adanis over some questions raised in regard to the investments by oil PSUs appears to be an attempt to discourage discussion and debate on the subject as a whole. Interestingly, such attempts to muzzle the media come at a time when a large number of big corporate groups are heavily debt ridden and are not being able to borrow fresh money from banks. Cash-rich PSUs, especially in the oil sector, seem to be substituting for the lack of private sector investments, and in many cases such investments are happening in partnership with the private sector. But the question we are raising is on what kind of terms is this happening? This is a legitimate question and to describe it as defamatory has all the characteristics of what has come to be known as SLAPP.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs are being used more frequently than ever as a tool to intimidate the media and to prevent inconvenient questions from being raised about the nexus between the government and big business. It is indeed puzzling that defamation suits are being initiated by corporate groups when the media is actually seeking explanations from the government over the merit or otherwise of taxpayers’ money being invested in public-private partnership projects.

The media has every right to seek explanations from the government and corporate houses where public interest is involved. Sometimes corporates tend to focus on minor errors in reporting which may not be central to the real issue brought forth by the media.

In this context, the Supreme Court’s observations yesterday in a defamation case are very relevant. The apex court orally emphasised that the media must exercise full freedom of expression and minor errors in the reporting of a scam or individuals involved in it cannot be held as defamatory.