Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: ‘Unfortunately, a large section of the media has stopped asking difficult questions’

Published : Oct 17, 2023 22:19 IST - 6 MINS READ

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta addresses journalists during a protest meeting over police actions on NewsClick, at Press Club of India, New Delhi on October 4, 2023.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta addresses journalists during a protest meeting over police actions on NewsClick, at Press Club of India, New Delhi on October 4, 2023. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

The veteran scribe believes the crackdown on NewsClick would have a chilling impact on journalists who believe in asking questions freely and fairly.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, 68, a journalist for the last 40 years, has investigated and written on the political economy, probity in the corporate sector, and the rise of oligarchic capitalism in India. His work was mentioned in the Hindenburg Research report that indicated fraud in the Adani Group’s share market dealings. The former editor of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Guha Thakurta has authored several books, including most recently The Rafale Deal: Flying Lies? (with Ravi Nair). He was one of the journalists who were questioned about their association with NewsClick. Excerpts from an interview he gave to Frontline:

NewsClick has been under the lens for the past few years. Did you expect this kind of government action?

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it. I am not a part of the editorial board or a shareholder. I have been a freelance consultant with NewsClick from May 2018. For the first three years, I got a monthly remuneration of about Rs.1.5 lakh, excluding TDS [tax deducted at source]. I write articles and do interviews. After the pandemic, the remuneration became Rs.1 lakh per month.

NewsClick has been targeted by this regime for some time. In February 2021, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) searched the office. Prabir Purkayastha, the editor, and his partner Githa Hariharan were confined to their home for five days. Thereafter, the Income Tax (IT) Department started their investigation.

These probes were based on an FIR filed by the Economic Offences Wing of the Delhi Police. The Delhi High Court granted protection to Prabir and his colleagues from coercive action. The government couldn’t arrest him under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002, or the Income-tax Act, 1961. Now, it has invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, the most draconian law.

Also Read | Assault on NewsClick marks the lowest point for media freedom in India since Emergency

Some young reporters questioned by the Delhi Police have said that they were initially treated with contempt. What was your experience?

They were very cordial. They treated me well. They offered tea, coffee, asked what food I wanted. I was asked the same questions over and over again by sub-inspectors, inspectors, Assistant Commissioners of Police, and officers up to the rank of Deputy Inspector General. They asked about the nature of my association with NewsClick, whether I had reported on the Delhi riots and the farmers’ protest.

They asked if I knew Teesta Setalvad [human rights activist]. They asked if I knew Neville Roy Singham [American millionaire accused of funding NewsClick as per the police FIR].

Some questions were ridiculous. They asked me who the S. Bhatnagar I had spoken to in the US was. I told them he’s my wife’s younger brother. They asked if I used Signal [a messaging app like WhatsApp]. I said yes.

What were the other questions?

They asked why I didn’t cover the G20 summit. I said I have certain areas of interest like political economy, corporate sector, crony capitalism, oligarchy. I am the only Indian citizen against whom lawyers representing corporate entities headed by Gautam Adani have instituted six cases of defamation. Five of these are pending in Gujarat and one in Rajasthan. After they completed medico-legal procedures, they handed back my phone at around 6 pm and told me I may leave. Some officers accompanied me on my way out.

“Mr Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister who has not held a single spontaneous press conference since May 2014.”

But they confiscated the gadgets of other journalists?

At my home, they asked for my personal electronic devices. I refused, telling them to ask for it in writing. They asked me to come to the Special Cell for a memo. I called my lawyer, who advised me to cooperate. There, they extracted data from my phone and returned it with my SIM card, unlike others whose devices have been seized and professional lives completely disrupted. It is unprecedented. I don’t think this kind of operation against journalists has ever taken place.

From your resignation from EPW, which coincided with that of others who apparently refused to toe a certain line, to the instances of hostile takeover of media organisations and now the clampdown on NewsClick, how do you connect the dots?

In the past, especially during the Emergency, those in power were not particularly tolerant of critical journalists and political opponents. But what has really changed in the past nine years is the vindictive attitude of the ruling dispensation. Agencies like the ED, IT Department, and the Central Bureau of Investigation are being misused to target political opponents and mediapersons who are trying to do their job.

Unfortunately, a large section of the media has stopped asking difficult questions. After the pandemic, dependence on government advertising has grown, and the Centre is the biggest source. A large section of the so-called mainstream media has stopped playing the role the fourth estate is supposed to play in a democracy. Those checks and balances have slowly disappeared. Instead, they criticise the opposition, a curious reversal of roles.

Mr Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister who has not held a single spontaneous press conference since May 2014, where anyone can ask him any question. Even in 2019, it was Amit Shah who responded to questions at a press conference in the BJP headquarters. Mr Modi picks journalists to give interviews. The media has become subservient.

Those who ask questions are targeted. NewsClick is a recent example. In the past, it happened to Dainik Bhaskar, The Wire, Newslaundry, and others.

Also Read | Crackdown on NewsClick signals erosion of democratic values

What is the status of legal cases against you?

The cases were instituted after I resigned from EPW in July 2017. In January 2021, a non-bailable warrant was issued against me by a court in Mundra, since suspended by the Gujarat High Court. The case hasn’t progressed. Another case pending against me pertains to an article about companies in the Adani Group, including power generating companies in Rajasthan. The article was published by NewsClick.

In the past too, I was served legal notices by the Ambani brothers, Subrata Roy of the Sahara Group, and Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd, which owns The Times of India. But I was never taken to court. Mr Adani has taken me to court, not once but six times. And that, before I became the only Indian journalist named in the Hindenburg Research report.

How will this crackdown on NewsClick impact young journalists?

It is going to have a chilling impact on all journalists who believe in asking questions freely and fairly. On those who believe Article 19 gives citizens the right to freedom of expression. The government is particularly vindictive towards independent journalists. It is a difficult road ahead. Young journalists must be prepared for an extremely challenging life.

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