A new book to be launched on Wednesday is a grim reminder of freedom of speech and expression in India.
The book, Sue the Messenger: How legal arm-twisting by corporates is shackling reportage and undermining democracy in India, is authored by independent journalists Subir Ghosh and Paranjoy Guha Thakurtha and published by Authors Upfront. In 203 pages, the book details in a fascinating manner, how the Ambani brothers, Sahara group and other corporate companies allegedly scuttled books about their businesses. The book’s website describes it as “a collection of stories about stories—stories that run foul of corporate entities and conglomerates, which result in SLAPPs (strategic litigation against public participation”.
Ahead of the book's launch in Delhi, its lead author Bengaluru-based journalist and researcher Subir Ghosh says that the book is not just about chronicling the rising number of instances of “legal arm-twisting by corporates” but also telling these stories to the people of this country. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
How did the idea for the book come about? How long have Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and you been working on this?
Around the time that we published 'Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis' in April 2014, there were at least two other instances where authors (Jitender Bhargava and Tamal Bandopadhyay) had been served defamation notices or had already been taken to court by certain parties that had felt aggrieved or defamed by the contents. Even while we were discussing the three books in question, Infosys served defamation notices on three newspapers for coverage that was not exactly flattering. It was time to sit up and take notice. We did top-of-the-memory recalls and came to the conclusion that the usage of SLAPPs (or, strategic litigations against public participation) was becoming more rampant/prevalent than earlier. This needed to be written about; told to the people of this country.
In an era where unabated corporatisation of the media, prevalence of unprofessional/sub-standard journalism, and the widespread malaise of paid news seem to be the order of the day, we felt that there are still those who try to write/report to the best of their ability and means, but are prevented from doing so through legal coercion by corporate entities, or are harassed later on for simply doing their work. This is a matter of concern, since if journalists are stopped from discharging their duties, it is the citizens who are deprived of their right to know. Therefore, it is democracy that suffers.
As for the second bit, we had been intermittently working on this project for about a year.
The website of the book says: “If writing and reporting are shackled, it is democracy which gets undermined. It is the people who lose their unfettered right to know.” How is free and fair journalism important to democracy? Why should people have the “unfettered right to know”?
It (the unfettered right to know) is a tenet that is elementary to democracy. That's why you have the Right to Information (RTI) Act, on the one hand. And on the other, a lot of information needs to be ferreted out and stitched together. That's elementary journalism.
How did you select the stories that were allegedly scuttled by corporate houses? Were there more which you had to leave out? If yes, why?
Nothing has been left out by design. The only problem was that since there is no proper or methodical documentation of corporate SLAPPs against journalists and writers, one had to rely heavily on one's own notes, documentation, memory, etc. But then, the book also lays this out very clearly: it is not meant to be a catalogue of legal cases.
Legal harassment is one way of scuttling reportage. It could be argued that an equally, if not more, serious problem is corporate ownership which has its own ways of killing stories – the blacking out or sidelining of certain issues/ groups/ politicial views. What are your views on this?
Yes, it is a problem / issue. Now, who is denying that? Paranjoy Guha Thakurta has written tomes about the issues of media ownership, media ethics and paid news. He has been doing so for years now; he has a book on media ethics published by OUP and was also on the sub-committee of the Press Council of India which had published a scathing and damning report on the problem of paid news. But then, this book is about journalists who do their job, and not about those who have sold their souls to the devil. You are free to damn the latter to hell, if you want.
How important are ‘stories about stories’, not just those that run afoul of those in power; but also about how some of the most influential stories of our times were broken.
You cannot afford to miss the context (of the book) here. But yes, I agree that there can and should be a book about some great investigative stories that have been done by Indian journalists. Many would have merely responded to the call of duty, and many would even have gone beyond that. Good work needs to be chronicled too, and told to people. Maybe, we will do something of a sequel.
Given that the book is about intimidation and harassment, was it more difficult to work on than Gas Wars or any of the other books that you are working on? Were there any particular challenges you faced in gathering material?
There was only one problem: listing out cases / instances. Very few of these trickle out into the public domain and become news. In my opinion, most of these probably remain unknown / unreported. What you have here (in this book) is possibly only the tip of the iceberg. The earliest incident that we could trace was about a book called 'The Mystery of Birla House'. It was about the Birla group and a number of alleged scams it was involved in (all under the conniving nose of the West Bengal government run by the Congress), and the fantastic piece of data-mining that was done by a person called Debajyoti Burman. It was arguably the first case of persecution of a journalist in Independent India, certainly for writing about crony capitalism. The book vanished without a trace in the 1950s. Yes, without a trace! Very few copies survive; you can't even Google up much about the book. We have something about Burman's exemplary work in our book (in addition to the information in the section on the Ambani brothers). Read it!
Were there any attempts to dissuade you from completing Sue the Messenger?