EPW Trustees Say They Were Denied Evidence on Adani Article; Not True, Says Ex-Editor

The Sameeksha Trust responds to criticism that it compromised the editorial independence of the magazine in the face of corporate pressure.

New Delhi: Three weeks after the removal of an article critical of Adani Power Ltd from the Economic and Political Weekly‘s website prompted accusations of capitulation in the face of corporate intimidation, the publishers of the prestigious magazine have issued a statement saying this was done because the article “was riddled with allegations based on information from anonymous sources, often just a single unnamed source; several assertions were unsubstantiated by evidence; and there were insinuations of impropriety against several persons, not backed by any firm evidence.”

“This is simply not true”, says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, lead author and editor of the magazine who quit in protest at what he says was the forced retraction of the article by members of the Sameeksha Trust, which owns EPW. “I said I will back up every sentence but the trustees were not interested.”

The piece in question, ‘Modi Government’s Rs 500-Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group’, by  Guha Thakurta and three other authors, was published by the magazine on July 17, 2017 and republished in its entirety in The Wire on July 19, 2017.

The article alleges that changes in the rules governing duty in special economic zones were tweaked by the government to favour the Adani group. and detailed the company’s attempts to secure a refund of Rs 506 crore that it was allegedly not entitled to.

None of the ministries or government departments against whom the article’s accusations were directed have to date responded to the article or controverted its contents. However, around a fortnight after its publication, EPW, the article’s authors, the Sameeksha Trust – which publishes the EPW – and The Wire were sent identical letters by a law firm representing the Adanis in which defamation was alleged and unspecified legal consequences threatened if the article was not immediately retracted.

In a meeting of the Sameeksha Trust trustees on July 18, 2017, the editor, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, was reprimanded for responding to the Adani letter on behalf of the Sameeksha Trust without the board’s consent and was asked to take the article down. Guha Thakurta complied with the demand and soon thereafter resigned from his job.

The statement issued by the trust that day offered no explanation for why the article was removed. Even two weeks on, readers who click on the original EPW link get an error message rather than a formal note explaining the reasons for the article’s retraction, as is usually the convention in professional publications.

Error message on the EPW web page of the Adani article, accessed August 4, 2017.

In a second statement issued on August 2, and signed by the six trustees who were party to the original decision – Deepak Nayyar, D.N. Ghosh, Romila Thapar, Dipankar Gupta, Rajeev Bhargava, Shyam Menon – as well as two trustees who were not present at the July 18 meeting, Andre Beteille and Deepak Parikh, the Sameeksha Trust has now accused Guha Thakurta of publishing an article that “failed to meet the standards of EPW” and “did not go through the EPW editorial review process”.

The statement says that in the July 18 meeting, “the Editor was advised to withdraw the article published in EPW online on 17 June 17, 2017, with which he readily agreed.” The statement adds that “the trustees had read the article cited in the legal notice … with utmost care” and that Guha Thakurta was “unwilling to provide” “supporting evidence”.

Guha Thakurta: ‘Forget evidence, one trustee even said [they] had not read the article’

Speaking to The Wire on August 3, Guha Thakurta said the trustees’ latest statement was incorrect.

“At no point was I asked to provide any supporting evidence,” he said. “In fact, one of the trustees even confessed that [they] had not yet read the article.” He also said the claim that he “readily agreed” to take down his own article was “completely untrue”. “As the editor, I was told by the trustees – you could say instructed or ordered – to take down the article immediately. I was even told that I could not leave the room until the article was removed from the EPW website and the trustees had received confirmation that this had been done.”

Guha Thakurta said it was simply not the case that the trustees raised questions about assertions in the article that were “unsubstantiated by evidence” or indeed any other aspect of it. “In fact, no one from the trust asked me to provide any supporting evidence,” he said.

Describing the sequence of events in the July 18 meeting, Guha Thakurta said that when one of the trustees referred to the Adani letter as “a defamation case” he replied that it was simply a letter and that if the matter were to go to court he would provide all the documentary evidence needed to “back up each and every sentence in the article”. However, the trustees were unwilling to discuss the matter and instead ordered the article taken down immediately, he said.

In response to a request from The Wire for an interview, Deepak Nayyar, chairman of the Sameeksha Trust, said, “I am sorry but it is not possible for me to do an interview on this matter. The reason is that I have an institutional, not personal, role. And I can only speak on behalf of the Sameeksha Trust as its Chairman.”

Review process: The reality

In their August 2 statement, the trustees said that EPW in its long history “has critiqued all manner of policies and establishments of all political colours – and it will continue to do so – but the instrument for criticism has to be evidence-based research and analysis or commentary. Every article that is published in the EPW is subject to peer review, by referees, by the senior editorial staff and the Editor. Its reputation as an independent credible voice, based on rigorous non-partisan editorial review, is what makes EPW so remarkable.”

A source familiar with EPW’s ‘review process’ told The Wire that the trustees’ claim that every article in the magazine “is subject to peer review” is not true.

“The trustees have now latched on to the fact that Paranjoy did not have his articles read internally by anyone else and are making an issue of it. Fair enough, but this was going on from the very first article Paranjoy published on his first day. What were the trustees doing all this while?,” he asked.

In fact, the issue of “editorial review process”, which never figured in the Sameeksha Trust’s original statement, first surfaced in the letter EPW staff sent to the trustees on July 25. The letter questioned the board for taking down the Adani article but also complained about Guha Thakurta’s style of functioning.

The source said that within the EPW, “review” meant the “more generic term of reading and assessing on suitability for publication. From what the staff say, no article of Paranjoy was read by anyone other than the proofreaders before it was published. That was what they were saying when they use the word “review”. And I think that is the basic problem… As in any decent publication, all articles must be read by another person; even if the article is written by the editor.”

While there is also a formal review process, say EPW insiders, Krishna Raj, when he was editor, “used it sparingly.” His successor, C. Rammanohar Reddy started using it in a more organised fashion. “Today, the formal review/referee process is used mostly in the Special Article section. Again not all of the articles even in the Special Article section are externally refereed, some are internally read as well.”