An editor’s exit reflects perils of investigative journalism
August 29, 2017

The controversy relating to a legal notice from Adani’s lawyers precipitating a crisis in the prestigious journal, Economic and Political Weekly, culminating in the resignation of its editor, senior and eminent journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, has many aspects to it. Bharat Dogra examines the two articles* which led to the crisis from the perspective of professional journalism

The first thing to note here is that the two articles that led to the ouster of the Economic and Political Weekly’s editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta fall in the category of public interest journalism. There is clearly a need, expressed by the government also many times, to increase revenue. Several welfare and even basic needs programmes have been suffering from serious cuts in budgets. There is also widespread agreement that the increase in revenue should avoid increasing the burden on common people, small operators and the informal sector, which are already reeling in serious crisis and, in some contexts, with unprecedented problems.

Increase in revenue has to come from a better and more careful scrutiny of the biggest operators, particularly operators who have already been on the radar of the investigating agencies for years and against whom a lot of evidence has already been gathered. Without effective improvements in such investigations as well as improvements in follow-up action, it is unlikely that the resources necessary for welfare and basic needs can be raised.

It is also very clear that the two articles in question which focus entirely on how loss of hundreds of crores of rupees can be avoided to the public exchequer clearly belong to the category of public interest journalism. While the cases involve several hundred crores of rupees, the articles also make it amply clear that the proceedings of the cases will also have a bearing on other cases; for instance, of circular trading, so that it is possible that the results of the cases can lead to loss or gains of several times more revenue for public exchequer.

Another matter of public interest which is often discussed but often about without specific examples relates to changes that are made in existing rules with the specific intent of giving huge benefits to certain parties. The articles are also relevant from this perspective as specific examples are discussed in detail. Hence, the public interest nature of the articles is very clear as the issues raised can potentially result in increasing government revenue by hundreds or even thousands of crores of rupees (for example, if these also have a bearing on other cases of circular trading).

The other important thing that emerges from a careful reading of the articles is that care has been taken to observe the various norms of responsible journalism. Of course, I have not researched the subject matter of the articles myself and, so, I avoid commenting on this. My comment is only related to the procedures followed by the writers which come out clearly from a careful reading of the two articles.

It is clear that the writers had prepared detailed questionnaires which they sent to various ministries, departments or other government organisations dealing with the cases. The questionnaires were sent by email as well as by regular post so as to have a proper record of the same. In addition, the relevant questionnaires were also sent to Adani and his lawyers.

If a reply from a government source came, it has been mentioned in the articles. However, for the most part, the concerned government departments chose not to respond at all. Even in their case, the writers have been generous enough to add that when a reply comes it will be added to the article. In the case of questionnaires sent to Adani and/or his lawyers, replies came and extracts from them giving their point of view have been carried (within the main articles). In fact, even the legal notice sent by them was later posted next to the articles.

All the necessary sources of statistics, tables, etc have been provided at the proper places. It is obvious that the writers had obtained copies of documents such as notices already served by investigating agencies which built a strong case for investigating the matter further. The writers have also been careful about giving relevant extracts from court judgements.

The concerned government authorities who have the challenging task ahead of increasing revenue without at the same time increasing the burden on common people should welcome such journalism but in the kind of troubled times through which we are passing these days, the more likely response is likely to be harass and victimise the concerned journalists. This clearly calls for much greater solidarity on the part of the journalists themselves, and also greater solidarity of the common people with such kind of investigative journalists.

*The two articles in question are: Did the Adani Group Evade Rs 1000 Crore in Taxes, published on January 14 this year, and Modi Government’s Rs 500 Crore Bonanza published on June 24.

(The writer has been involved with public interest journalism and was a co-recipient of the prestigious Sachin Chaudhari Award (named after the founding editor of EPW) for financial journalism.)

July – September 2017