On 8 October, the news website The Wire published a report on the financial growth of Temple Enterprise Private Limited, a company owned by Jay Shah, the son of the national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah. The report stated that, according to its filings with the registrar of companies, the turnover of Jay’s company “increased 16,000 times over in the year following the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister and the elevation of his father to the post of party president.”
Citing the balance sheets and annual reports that it had filed with the RoC, the report noted that Temple Enterprise is described to have engaged in wholesale trade, and that over 95 percent of its revenues “come from the sale of agricultural products.” Further, it said, Shah’s company “engaged in negligible activity” and recorded losses of Rs 6,230 and Rs 1,724 in the financial years ending in 2013 and 2014 respectively. “In 2014-15, it showed a profit of Rs 18,728 on revenues of only Rs 50,000,” the report added. “However, in 2015-16, the firm’s revenues jumped to over Rs 80.5 crore, a growth of 16 lakh percent.” According to the filings, the report noted, in October 2016, Jay Shah’s company “suddenly stopped its business activities altogether, declaring, in its director’s report, that Temple’s net worth had ‘fully eroded’ because of the loss it posted that year of Rs 1.4 crore and its losses over earlier years.”
In addition to those of Temple Enterprise, The Wire report included details of the filings of Kusum Finserve, a limited liability partnership “incorporated in July 2015 with Jay Shah owning a 60% stake in it.” According to the report, the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA), a public sector unit functioning under the ministry of new and renewable energy, granted Kusum Finserve a loan of Rs 10.35 crore, to set up a wind-energy plant in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh. At the time the loan was granted, Piyush Goyal, now the union minister for railways and coal, held the post of the minister of state (independent charge) for power, and was also minister of state (independent charge) for new and renewable energy.
A report published in National Herald—often said to be the mouthpiece of the Congress party— noted that according to the norms listed on the IREDA’s website, it can sanction loans to wind-farm projects with generational capacities of upto 1 Megawatt. Shah’s company proposed a 2.1 MW plant, the report stated. Such loans can, the IREDA website states, be given for a maximum of 70 percent of the eligible machine cost for the project. In India, the cost of installing a 1 MW wind farm typically lies between roughly Rs 4 and 7 crore. The National Herald reported noted that, even for the costliest plant, adhering to its own 70-percent cap, the maximum loan the IREDA could grant would be approximately Rs 4.9 crore. Shah’s company received nearly twice that amount.
The Wire’s report noted that in response to its queries, Jay’s lawyer Manik Dogra, speaking on his behalf, said that Jay was a “private citizen” doing “legitimate business.” Dogra added: “If you or anyone in the print, electronic or digital media carries and/or broadcasts any defamatory and/or false imputations including those which breach his fundamental right of privacy and/or defame him, Jay Shah reserves the right to prosecute and sue such person/entity.”
The report resulted in an uproar on social media. The story was shared widely, and the hashtag “AmitShahKiLoot” began to trend on Twitter. Many Twitter users also began to criticise Rohini Singh, the author of the story. (Previously employed with the publication Economic Times, in 2011, Singh broke the news of the businessman Robert Vadra’s dealings with the real-estate giant DLF.) Amit Malviya, the chief of the BJP’s IT cell, tweeted: “Discredited journalist who was plugging for a political party in UP, now a prized possession of another rag!” Malviya and several prominent supporters of the ruling party began employing the hashtag “LiesAgainstShah.” While one Twitter user termed Singh an “absolute illiterate,” others named her an “idiot,” a “Congressi,” and termed her journalism “fake news.”
Later in the day, Goyal, the cabinet minister, called a press conference to discuss Singh’s report. He said that the article contained “absolutely no substance,” and that it was “derogatory, defamatory, hallowed and baseless.” Claiming that Jay ran a “fully legitimate business,” Goyal said that the businessman “has decided to file criminal defamation suit against the author, editors and the owners of The Wire. They shall be prosecuted for criminal defamation and sued for an amount of Rs 100 crore in the Ahmedabad court.”
Goyal’s words were echoed in a public statement by Jay, in which he confirmed that he was suing Singh and The Wire. “The article makes false, derogatory and defamatory imputation against me by creating in the minds of right-thinking people an impression that my business owes its ‘success’ to my father Shri Amitbhai Shah’s political position,” Jay wrote.
It is unclear why Goyal, a cabinet minister, came to Jay’s defense, but he was not the only government official in the businessman’s corner. Tushar Mehta, the additional solicitor to the central government, told NDTV that he was likely to represent Jay in the matter. “I have taken permission from the Law Ministry on 6th October for this issue. I am being consulted in this case. I may even appear for the case in court,” Mehta reportedly said.
Jay Shah is certainly not the first businessman to decide to register a lawsuit against a journalist or a publication that investigated the workings of his enterprise. He is one in a growing list of business owners and corporations in India who have responded to critical investigative journalism with legal action.
In July, the senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta resigned from his post as the editor of the Economic and Political Weekly following a legal notice served by the Adani Group, whose owner Gautam Adani is understood to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The legal notice concerned a June article by Guha Thakurta, in which the editor, along with three others, examined whether the conglomerate received an undue refund of over Rs 500 crore from the finance ministry under the Modi government. The notice asked for the article to be taken down. In a meeting with Guha Thakurta, the board members of the Sameeksha Trust, the organisation that runs the journal, asked the editor to comply with the notice. (Guha Thakurta’s article was republished by The Wire, and is available on its website.)
Earlier this year, in March 2017, the member of parliament Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who heads the financial services company Jupiter Capital, and who is the vice president of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in Kerala, obtained an ex-parte injunction against two articles published in The Wire. The first article, written by the journalist Sandeep Bhushan, expressed concerns regarding Chandrasekhar’s investment in the TV channel Republic, and questioned whether the channel’s news coverage would be impacted by the investor’s political stances. The second, written by Sachin Rao, who is said to be close to Rahul Gandhi, discussed whether Chandrasekhar’s position on the standing committee on defence in the Rajya Sabha constituted a conflict of interest, as Jupiter Capital has assets in the defence sector. Chandrasekhar filed a civil defamation suit against the publication, as a part of which he obtained the injunction.
The publication was recently sued by the Essel group for defamation as well, after it ran a story regarding a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. In the report, the central agency had published findings regarding gross irregularities in the state-run lottery in Mizoram, to the tune of Rs 11,000 crore. The CAG had named two companies under the Essel group in its report, in addition to state agencies. After the Gauhati High Court stayed the case in early October, the Essel group withdrew it.
Other similar examples abound—in early August, a district court in Delhi granted an ex-parte injunction against the book Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev. In it, the investigative journalist Priyanka Pathak-Narain had detailed Ramdev’s rise from a yoga guru in Haridwar to the founding head of India’s second largest FMCG group, Patanjali. In December 2016, Jet Airways and its founder-chairman Naresh Goyal filed two defamation lawsuits against the journalist Josy Joseph, seeking Rs 1,000 crore in damages. The lawsuit was in response to details contained in Joseph’s book A Feast for Vultures. Joseph reported that in 2001, the chief of the Intelligence Bureau, KP Singh, and its joint director Anjan Ghosh wrote to the home ministry stating that the agency had “confirmed information” of contact between Naresh and the underworld bosses Chhota Shakeel and Dawood Ibrahim.
This publication too, has seen legal action against it. In mid 2015, The Caravan published a series of investigative stories on the functioning of the Essar conglomerate, including an in-depth cover story regarding its influence among prominent politicians and bureaucrats. In August that year, the Essar Group filed a defamation lawsuit against The Caravan, its editors, its owner Delhi Press, and Krishn Kaushik, who reported the story. The group filed the suit in a city civil court in Ahmedabad, and sued for Rs 250 crore in damages.
Beyond the threat of lawsuits by businessmen and industrialists, another spectre looms over media houses in India—of likely politically motivated action by government and law-enforcement agencies against journalists, especially those critical of the ruling establishment. In June this year, the Central Bureau of Investigation raided the residences and offices of Radhika and Prannoy Roy, the promoters of the news channel NDTV, in connection with a complaint regarding alleged financial impropriety in the channel’s dealings with ICICI Bank. The properties were raided soon after NDTV’s executive editor and anchor Nidhi Razdan got into an on-air verbal spat with the BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, who accused the channel of having a politically motivated “agenda” on the subject of cow slaughter. Razdan had asked Patra to either apologise or leave the show.
Many in the media fraternity and among civil society saw the NDTV raids as more than coincidental. The Editors Guild of India expressed concern over the raid, stating that the “entry of police and other agencies into the media offices is a serious matter.” “For the BJP’s sympathisers and NDTV’s detractors, it is convenient to defend the raids as falling within the letter of CBI procedure and due legal process,” Anant Nath, the editor of this publication, wrote in the magazine’s July issue. But, Nath added, recent precedents in countries such as Turkey and Russia—both of which are under stridently nationalist governments, and have seen a devolution of press freedom—“remind us that India’s proponents of democracy still have every cause to be alarmed.”
International journalists investigating Indian companies do not appear any more immune. Earlier this month, the Australian TV channel Four Corners uploaded a documentary to its website. Titled “Digging Into Adani,” the film looks into the workings of the Adani group, which is set to build Australia’s largest coal mine and will likely receive a loan of 1 billion Australian dollars from its government’s funds. In a note on its website, the channel described the difficulties its reporters faced in India: “While attempting to film and gather information about Adani’s operations, the Four Corners team had their cameras shut down, their footage deleted and were questioned for hours by police.” In a promotional video for the documentary, the reporter Stephen Long stated that the officials from the crime branch in Gujarat visited him at his hotel within his day of his arrival at Mundra port, and that the Four Corners team left Mundra in the middle of the night. “It was obvious they [the police] knew why we were there,” Long said in the promotional video. “But everybody was avoiding the A-word: Adani.” They were “left in no doubt that their investigations into the Indian company triggered the police action,” the note added.
In August 2016, Outlook magazine published a cover story titled “Operation BabyLift,” in which the journalist Neha Dixit reported on the trafficking of 31 tribal girls out of Assam, by organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent. Following the story’s publication, SC Koyal, the assistant solicitor general of the government of India at the Gauhati High Court, along with Bijon Mahajan, a spokesperson of the BJP, registered a police complaint against Dixit and Outlook for “inciting communal hatred.” The complaint reportedly quoted only one line from Dixit’s piece. “Threats against journalists may be an occupational hazard but what we are seeing today is a more serious attempt to shoot the messenger,” Krishna Prasad, the former editor of Outlook, told the media website The Hoot. (Soon after the story was released, Prasad was removed from his position at the magazine.)
On 9 October, Siddharth Vardarajan, the founding editor of The Wire, posted a picture on his Twitter account. It was an image of the first page of the criminal complaint filed by Jay Shah against the publication and its editors. “The Wire won’t be intimidated by Modi govt’s attack on media freedom,” Varadarajan wrote. The publication “will fight this baseless defamation case,” he told me.
It is to be noted that India has slipped three places down on the World Press Freedom Index this year. It is now ranked 136, behind countries such as Palestine, Afghanistan, Uganda, Chad, Kuwait, the UAE and Burma. In an editorial published two days after the raids on NDTV’s promoters, the New York Times expressed concern that the state of the Indian media had worsened since the BJP government’s rise to power. “Since Mr Modi took office in 2014, journalists have faced increasing pressures. They risk their careers—or lives—to report news that is critical of the government or delves into matters that powerful politicians and business interests do not want exposed,” the editorial said. “News outlets that run afoul of the government can lose access to officials. The temptation to self-censor has grown, and news reports are increasingly marked by a shrill nationalism that toes the government line.” As the alarm bells over the threats to press freedom in India reverberate across the world, one hopes that they will not fall on deaf ears.
Sagar is a web reporter at The Caravan.