Q&A: ‘Chilling’: Journalist sued by Adani, cited by Hindenburg

Veteran Indian journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta talks about his reporting on Adani, meeting the billionaire and the cases he faces.

Indian billionaire Gautam Adani addressing investors from an unknown location
This grab from video released by Adani Enterprises Ltd on Thursday, February 2, 2023 shows Indian billionaire Gautam Adani addressing investors from an unknown location. [Adani Enterprises Ltd via AP/ AP Photo]

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a veteran Indian journalist, has been writing about the Adani Group and its business practices since 2015. Guha Thakurta’s reporting has covered allegations that Adani overcharged for coal and power machinery and unfairly benefitted from a change in rules for power plants in Special Economic Zones.

In 2017, Adani filed the first in a series of defamation suits against Guha Thakurta over his reporting. That same year, Guha Thakurta resigned as editor of the Economic and Political Weekly after an article he wrote about Adani was pulled.

US investment research firm Hindenburg Research’s blockbuster report accusing Adani of “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud”, released in January, drew on reporting by Guha Thakurta and other independent journalists. Adani has rejected the allegations by Hindenburg Research, which is known for its short-selling activism, and denied any wrongdoing.

India’s Supreme Court has appointed an independent team of experts to investigate the allegations, a decision that Adani has welcomed. Here Guha Thakurta speaks about his reporting, and the cases Adani has filed against him.

Al Jazeera: Was there anything about the Hindenburg report that surprised you?

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: My first article on the Adani Group appeared in 2015, in a portal called The Citizen. The editor of that portal, Seema Mustafa, asked me to write it. I said I have nothing new to say. She said ‘Why don’t you compile the information that is already in the public domain’. That article was essentially a compilation of articles and information that was in the public domain.

If you recall, that was around the time the Prime Minister of India had visited Australia. He was accompanied by Mr Gautam Adani [the chairman and founder of Adani Group] and the then-head of the State Bank of India Arundhati Bhattacharya. There was then, just talk, that the State Bank of India, India’s largest bank, would give the first loan of its kind – of a billion dollars – for this huge project in the Galilee Basin in Queensland, which was at that time described as the world’s biggest greenfield coal mining project. It’s a separate matter that in the end that loan never materialised and the project had to be very drastically scaled down in size to about one-fourth of what was originally envisaged.

That was for a variety of reasons. International financial institutions did not extend loans. There were protests within Australia by environmental groups. And it is not just a coal mine. There is a railroad, a port called Abbot Point. So it’s a huge project. So that was my first article. To return to your question: When the report came out on January 24, I went through it. To be honest, I was astounded.

What surprised me was that I was the only Indian journalist referred to in the Hindenburg report.

In the end, the authors raised 88 questions and said please answer these questions. The 84th question pertains to me. It was: ‘In interviews, Gautam Adani has said ‘I have a very open mind toward criticism.’ Given this, why did Adani seek to have critical journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta jailed following his articles on allegations of Adani tax evasion?”

Al Jazeera: Tell us about your interactions with the group and the cases against you.

Guha Thakurta: I am the only Indian journalist against whom entities of the Adani Group have filed more than six cases of defamation. I am the only Indian citizen. In two of these cases, there are gag orders on me and they have been there since September 2020. So you will notice that everything I am telling you is just facts. And I will continue to say the facts.

I’ll tell you about the two cases of defamation pending against me in Mundra, the three cases pending against me and my colleagues in Ahmedabad and one case in Baran in Rajasthan.

The last article I wrote for the Economic and Political Weekly was in June 2017. It was published after that in The Wire. It had a title to the effect that the Modi government gave a Rs500 crore ($61m) bonanza to the Adani Group. (It is one of the articles due to which the group has filed defamation cases against Guha Thakurta, on the basis that the allegations are false.)

Al Jazeera: You have met Mr Adani and discussed these cases. Talk about that.

Guha Thakurta: Yes, of course I have. The first time was in May 2017. It was a very cordial meeting. I took notes. The meeting was entirely off the record so that’s all I have to say. I sought the meeting because I am writing a book about him.

The second time I met him was in February 2021. That was a long meeting that lasted almost two hours. That meeting had been at the behest of my lawyer to explore the possibility of an out-of-court settlement since in the Mundra case — I was the only one against whom the cases were pending. The meeting was inconclusive. The third time I had a meeting with him was over a WhatsApp call very recently that lasted 15 minutes. I requested Mr Adani to withdraw the cases against me. He was noncommittal.

Al Jazeera: There has been some speculation that you contributed to the Hindenburg report. Did you?

Guha Thakurta: I had never heard of Hindenburg research until the 24th of January [when the firm released its report into Adani’s operations]. As far as I know, Hindenburg was the former president of Germany thanks to whom Hitler came to power. It was after him that Zeppelin was named, the airship that was to fly over the Atlantic but caught fire. I subsequently learned that Hindenburg Research is a firm with a small number of people run by a young person called Mr Nathan Anderson, who gave his own company this name because it symbolised or epitomised a man-made disaster.

Al Jazeera: The Supreme Court of India has set up a committee to look into the Hindenburg report. What do you think needs to happen in the Adani case? And given your own experience, what message does this give on press freedom in India?

Guha Thakurta: Agencies of the government of India and independent bodies, independent regulatory authorities including SEBI (the Securities and Exchange Board of India) and the Reserve Bank of India, need to investigate the allegations that have been made. Whether they are true or not. Whether they have any basis or not. These are allegations made even before the Hindenburg report came out.

The regulatory agencies and authorities that are otherwise very, very quick in acting against critics of the government … they have been rather tardy in looking into the allegations made against the Adani Group.

This is what I think should be done. This is irrespective of what the Supreme Court committee does or does not do.

The second part of your question. The messages are very loud and they are very clear. Spokespersons of the government, Mr Gautam Adani, all claim they believe in the freedom of expression, all claim we respect press freedom. Now the question would be the 84th question, raised in the Hindenburg report, about me. And the response from the Adani Group is that the judge has done what it had to do. What it fails to mention, is that this pertains to a certain case, a criminal defamation case relating to an article on Adani, on Adani Power.

On the bigger issue of press freedom, I personally believe that media freedom today is under greater threat than ever before, certainly since the mid-1970s. To be precise, the period between July 1975 and January 1977 when the government of Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency.

And when they act against people like me — I am a privileged journalist, I speak to you in English, I don’t have to worry where my next meal comes from and whether or not there is a roof over my head — imagine the plight of journalists who work in remote areas, rural areas. Who have been threatened, who have been put behind bars. Imagine their plight.

These kinds of legal actions are what you call SLAPPS, or Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. The idea is to send a message to everybody else. It has a chilling effect. It sends a message that if they can do it to a 67-year-old person like me with 45 years of work experience, who has worked in some of the leading media organisations in the country, it can happen to anybody.

Source: Al Jazeera