Media Freedom Threatened in Narendra Modi’s India
In India, the question of press freedom and corporate-political control and nexus has again been thrown wide open. The first instance is the case of the summary departure of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a well-known Indian journalist, clearly over his recent exposes on the Gautam Adani group, a corporate giant with avowedly close links to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.
The second is the sudden removal of a well-known television journalist, Nikhil Wagle, who was shown the door without any semblance of procedure or debate. Wagle, an iconic figure in regional language television, has had a fierce and independent persona since he ran the popular Marathi-language evening paper Mahanagar (Mahanagar means “Cosmopolis,” signifying Bombay) and was even attacked by the rabid cadres of the Shiv Sena in the early and mid-1990s.
Wagle had over the past decade transformed into a popular television anchor. Wagle had tweeted in 2014, “Just resigned from IBN Lokmat,” before adding further in his inimitable style, “Will continue journalism without fear or favor!” Speaking to televisionpost.com at the time, Wagle pointed to the corporate takeover by Reliance Industries of the Network18 group that ran IBN-Lokmat as being the reason for his decision to quit. He said, “There have been many management changes lately. Problem is the nexus between corporates and politicians, and their putting pressure on journalists.”
Wagle’s second sack from Maharashtra One was clearly related to his sharp questioning of the spokesperson of Sanatan Sanstha, Abhay Vartak. This organization has been advocating armed rebellion to convert India to a theocratic state and is being investigated by Indian law enforcement for the killings of three rationalists, Narayan Dabholkar (2013), Govind Pansare (2015) and MM Kalburgi (2015). Fifteen months before his sack, Wagle had received threats from Sanatan Sanstha.
Since May 2017, Wagle had been moderating a one-hour political talk show “Sadetod” on TV9 Marathi news channel. Suddenly he was told, after his show had run on July 19, that the management had decided to close down the show. What made the management cower was when Wagle’s program had achieved the highest viewership among Marathi news shows.
“I had been sensing trouble for the last one month and the management would crib over trivial issues. I was asked why I talk against Narendra Modi or the BJP. My show had spokespersons from all the political parties including the BJP. How could I then be blamed for criticizing a single party or man?” Wagle, who had signed a one-year contract with the network, told The Wire.
Wagle was one of the youngest journalists to make editor in India, beginning his career in 1977. Within two years he became editor of “Dinank.” A few years later he started his own publishing house, Akshar Prakashan. He also started various magazines and newspapers.
While Wagle’s summary sacking received less media attention, online portals have elaborated on the story of senior investigative journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s enforced resignation from the left-of-center and prestigious Economic and Political Weekly.
On July 18, a similarly tasteless scenario was being played out within the premises of the Sameeksha Trust. Paranjoy Guja Thakurta spoke to us at the Wire, the Hindu and Scroll about the reasons he was asked to quit. It was clearly the stories on the Adani group and the favors it enjoyed under the current Modi dispensation that had led to the Trust Board meeting, which asked him to remove the articles from their website and agree to a co-editor.
There were two articles that had invited a legal notice from the powerful corporate honcho. Both have been re-published by the Wire. One dealt with serious allegations of how the government had carefully tweaked the rules related to special economic zones, to enable the Adanis to avail of huge tax cuts. The substantial revenue loss had not been even challenged by the government. The second, earlier one questioned the alleged tax evasion by the Adani group.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta has gone public on the issue, standing up for a story for which he had full documentation—and which the EPW editorial board asked him to immediately pull down.
As reported on SabrangIndia,
“The notice was served over a story EPW ran on how the government allegedly altered rules for special economic zones (SEZs), which led to the Adani Group reaping a profit of Rs 500 crore. The EPW’s article [was] titled ‘Modi Government’s â‚¹500 Crore Bonanza to Adani Group Company.’ It claimed: ‘By frequently changing the rules relating to power projects located in special economic zones, the department of commerce in the ministry of industry and commerce has allowed Adani Power claims for refunds of customs duties to the tune of â‚¹500 crore. Curiously, the duties were never paid.’
“The story was published by EPW in Vol. 52, Issue No. 24, June 17, 2017. It took three weeks for the corporate giant to respond—EPW received a legal notice from a lawyer representing Adani Power, which is headed by Gautam Adani. Predictably, this notice accused EPW and the writers of the article of defamation and threatened legal action unless the piece was retracted, an unconditional apology was issued, and any defamatory material on Adani not be published by the magazine ‘in any manner whatsoever.’”
In its response on July 13, EPW had stood by its story and in his reply to Adani Power’s lawyer, EPW’s advocate reaffirmed that each and every word in the article was truthful and backed by documentary evidence. We are now being told by the Board that this was Thakurta acting of his own accord.
Barely a week later the Board of the Trust of the Journal met, served what appears to be a clear ultimatum to the author and asked him to pull down the article(s) from the website of the journal. In a subsequent statement to the media they have asserted “there is no question of bowing to pressure.” The issue the Board claims is that Thakurta had replied to the legal notice without keeping the Board in the loop or seeking its approval.
Thakurta accepts this procedural lapse, but still questions the haste with which he was required to pull down the articles in question. According to SabrangIndia:
“Thakurta resigned 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.’
“The Sameeksha Trust board met in Delhi… [the week of July 18 and] 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 Sabrangindia that this was the cost that investigative journalism would be increasingly asked to pay.”
In his reply to the Adani legal notice, Thakurta had stated:
“8. That on the issue of misuse of the export promotion scheme, even the Hon’ble Supreme Court has used very harsh language against your client as to how your client has misused the scheme and fraudulently inflated export turnover, and how your client has even without making actual exports, played around with the provisions of the scheme and tried to take undue advantage thereof. This finding of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has also been quoted by my client’s in the said article. Thus, the reporting done by my client’s is not only back and supported by documentary evidence, but also by judicial pronouncement.
“9. That in view of the above it is re-iterated that there is not an iota of substance in your client’s bald claims. Your client will be well advised to withdraw your legal notice dated 24.06.2017, failing which my client shall be constrained to invoke the majesty of law to the hilt, should your client choose to trigger the first ill-conceived/advised shot. Your client may kindly note the adage ‘be you ever so high, law is above you.’ Your client may further be informed that truth can never be suppressed and it is the constitutional obligation of an independent journalist to surface the truth at any cost. I do sincerely hope, you would be gracious enough to suitably advise your client appropriately.”
This corporate strategy to silence investigative journalism is internationally known as SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation), and has been used the world over. Two years ago, in an editorial calling upon the United States to follow California and enact a law to protect free speech against encroachment by powerful interests, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “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.”
As SabrangIndia reports:
“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.”
The decision of the board of trustees of the Sameeksha Trust to pull back a story on a simple legal notice without even allowing the editor fair chance of rebuttal, has raised uncomfortable questions. Legal notices are used as a form of intimidation. With costs of lawsuits being prohibitively high, editors, proprietors, journalists and writers often have to succumb and investigative journalism pays a price. In this case, the corporate giant in question is also very close to the political leadership in New Delhi.
Thakurta, a senior journalist, took over as editor of EPW in 2016. Rammanohar Reddy, who was its editor since 2004, quit over differences with the board of trustees on the publication’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
On the board of the Sameeksha Trust are chairman Deepak Nayyar, the powerful corporate figure Deepak Parikh and historian Romila Thapar. The journal has enjoyed a reputation of relatively untainted journalism. Thakurta’s book Gas Wars (crony Capitalism and the Ambanis) was self-published, an expose of how India’s natural resources have been controlled and manipulated by this industrial house, aided and abetted by those in power of different political hues.
His other critical work is on media ethics. He writes, “Media Ethics is a comprehensive textbook designed for under- and post-graduate students of mass communication and journalism courses. It discusses key ethical issues in the light of the new face of journalism and the dynamic changes that are taking place in media today.”
The issue of EPW and its board alleged to have succumbed to corporate pressure are still being debated within India, and even the board insists that the action was taken because Guja Thakurta did not follow procedure and norms.
The public statement released states, “Guha Thakurta initiated a legal process, ostensibly on behalf of the Sameeksha Trust without informing, let alone obtaining the approval of, the trust, although such a decision was not in the domain of the editor to make.” Further, the legal reply—sent on the instructions of Guha Thakurta—“falsely” began with a statement that it was at the instructions of the trust, the statement said. “This reply and the notice were placed on the EPW website even before the chairman and managing trustee were informed, so the trustees were completely unaware of these developments.”
The developments within EPW will continue to be central to discussions—what will be watched especially is what kind of journalist will be appointed to the post of editor after Thakurta’s exit. This is a significant development in Indian journalism, reflecting the pressures that journalists and publications work under in the Modi regime.
Within this same week, the Hindustan Times, which had published an opinion piece titled "Sikkim standoff: Why China is challenging India now," by Sushil Aaron, pulled it off its website hours after the article went viral. Inevitably, there were speculations of governmental pressure and fortunately, the article reappeared hours after social media users started questioning Hindustan Times for its decision. In this analysis, Aaron had accused Modi government of working to achieve political and ideological dominance rather than addressing the basic issues of the country. The article reads:
“The real source of India’s weakness at the moment is that the Modi government is concentrating its energies on achieving political and ideological dominance, rather than addressing the country’s glaring deficits. Politics of polarization has taken precedence over governmental efforts to facilitate cooperation among citizens that can yield productive outcomes. All regimes in big powers aim to increase power, but they strive for excellence as well (in the hope of compensating for weaknesses). In India we are, for most part, seeing the former without much evidence of support for the latter.’
All these instances point to the urgent need for independent scrutiny and reform. Three decades ago, the Press Council of India had predicted ominously that the greatest danger to the autonomy and integrity of Indian journalism came from the corporate sector. India is today witnessing an age of crass crony capitalism.
A recent report has documented how in 2015, India had 41 cases of censorship, 48 cases of defamation, 14 cases of sedition and 8 cases of surveillance of individual journalists. The ban on NDTV India, subsequently revoked by the Modi government, illustrates how media outfits are silenced, especially when they seek to reflect issues of social concern, civil and human rights violations, environmental degradation by the corporate-political nexus. Governments and corporates often use non-state actors, or even law enforcement, to intimidate journalists, incarcerate them and inflict violence. India has seen violence inflicted on journalists in the state of Chhattisgarh where the government is encouraging corporate mining even as the local indigenous populations are starved of education and health facilities. Reporters covering corruption scandals (like the Vyapam scam in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh) are just some recent instances of the dangers faced by journalists.
According to a Press Council of India report, 80 journalists and five media persons have been murdered in India since 1990 (by May 2016, this had increased to 94). It is no surprise that India ranked a lowly 133 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.
The existing Press Council of India with limit powers that do not allow its reports or recommendations to be enforced has proven to be inadequate, as have other bodies like the News Broadcasting Authority, etc. The Editor’s Guild has, on occasion, made an intervention that has received traction. But all in all, there are few institutional safeguards for the individual journalist in India who must function in an atmosphere of curtailed freedoms, intimidation and threat.