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Corporate tycoons on censorship overdrive

Investigative journalists face the brunt as Corporate tycoons send one legal notice after another

Nikhil Inamdar  |  Mumbai 

India’s corporate captains not only wield a lot of financial power, but also a lot of political clout. And because they are large advertisers, there is pressure on large sections of the media to either not publish, or put on air material that is excessively critical of them, says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and Co-Author of Gas Wars –Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis. Paranjoy has been slapped with a Rs 100 crore lawsuit by Reliance Industries for writing this book.

Guha was participating in a debate anchored by Govindraj Ethiraj on Boom News titled “Is Big Business intimidating Investigative Journalism?” along with another eminent journalist Tamal Bandyopadhyay. The latter only recently reached an amicable settlement with the Sahara Group which had late last year got a stay order against the publication of his book 'Sahara:The Untold Story'. Subrata Roy’s company had even filed a Rs 200 cr defamation case against the author.

ALSO READ: Sahara drops defamation case against 'untold story'

The latest to join this bandwagon – of author-journalists that have come under the line of attack from the goliaths of industry for writing not-so-flattering accounts are the publishers of Moneylife - Debashis Basu and Sucheta Dalal. And it is RIL again that has served them a notice for publishing articles titled "Congress gift to Reliance: RIL sole beneficiary of anti-dumping duty on PTA" and "Ambani ki dukaan?." The notice, sent by legal services firm Khaitan & Co accuses Moneylife of "validating highly objectionable parts from the book "Gas Wars - Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis" and deliberately attempting to slander RIL’s “name and reputation by publicizing a highly-objectionable pamphlet.”

In fact the Ambani brothers seem to have been on an overdrive when it comes to dealing with non-cooperative publishers. In May 2013, younger brother Anil's lawyers sent Caravan magazine a pre-emptive notice even before its cover story exposing how India's Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati had tailored his opinions to help Ambani's case was published. And we all know about the fate of Australian journalist Hamish McDonald's book The Polyester Prince, Dhirubhai Ambani's unofficial biography that never went into print!

But it isn’t merely investigative literature by journalists that's under attack. Books like the one by insiders such as Jitendra Bhargava, a former executive director at India's national carrier titled “The Descent of Air India” was also muzzled for allegedly containing damaging accusations against the then civil aviation minister Praful Patel.

While the past year has seen a lot of politically damaging literature - Sanjaya Baru's The Accidental Prime Minister being the latest one - get published without much difficulty, when it comes to business books that are not puff jobs or hagiographies, the attempts have mostly resulted in legal tussles.

“Unlike politicians who are used to public criticism, corporate captains tend to be a bit allergic to it, even if it is based on facts” says Thakurta explaining the phenomenon.

Bandyopadhyay agrees with the observation. "Unlike overseas, the tolerance level of large corporations in India is very low" he says, particularly with regards to books which can often become reference points for posterity. Corporates are still hesitant to take on newspaper establishments but find lone authors as soft targets, he adds.

Broadly speaking, the common thread that links all these books, is their attempt to deconstruct the cozy relationship between business and politics and the menace of crony capitalism that's gained tremendous currency in the Indian context after the 2G and Coalgate scams. It has also arguably become the biggest campaign issue between the Congress and the BJP in these elections. The two sides have been trading vicious attacks over Robert Vadra’s alleged shady land dealings and Narendra Modi’s proximity to industrialist Gautam Adani.

Many authors have thus far been browbeaten into submission by corporate entities using their financial and political muscle, but Guha-Thakurta is hopeful that the growing influence of the internet will ultimately empower more and more investigative writers to get their work to the readers.

"McDonald's book wouldn't have met the same fate it did, had it been published today." he says.

Given the unprecedented attempts to gag content just in the last one year, is there reason for such optimism?

Click HERE to watch Boom TV's debate on whether big business is intimidating investigative Journalism.

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First Published: Tue, April 29 2014. 15:20 IST