A test of Adani’s attempts to crack down on its critics will occur on Tuesday 2 March 2021, when the Queensland Supreme Court will hear the company’s case against climate campaigner Ben Pennings. Supporters of Mr Pennings will be out in force outside the court. Meanwhile, the Adani Group’s attempts to muzzle its critics in India are also being tested, both by the judiciary and in the court of public opinion.
Adani (now trading in Australia as Bravus) alleges that Mr Pennings ran a campaign of intimidation and harassment against the company’s attempts to open up the Galilee coal basin to exploitation. Adani’s Carmichael mine, if it goes ahead, would be the first in a series of proposed mines aimed at extracting millions of tonnes of coal from the massive basin. For several years, Mr Pennings was the public face of Galilee Blockade, a community endeavour aimed at protecting the Earth’s climate by keeping the coal in the ground.
Adani instituted proceedings against Mr Pennings in August 2020. Later that month it was revealed that Adani had secretly but unsuccessfully sought the court’s permission to mount a raid on Mr Pennings’s family home in Brisbane in order to seek confidential documents supposedly acquired by Mr Pennings. In October 2020, it was further revealed that Adani had organised surveillance of Mr Pennings and his family by hiring a private security firm. The secret photographing of Mr Pennings walking his nine-year-old daughter to school was widely described as a ‘creepy’ and 'abhorrent' move by Adani.
In statements to the media, Adani attempted to excuse its behaviour.
‘Any surveillance activity related to the relatives of Mr Ben Pennings, was an effort to determine the time of day to carry out a search order that would see the least disruption to residents, if it was granted by the courts,’ a company spokesperson said.
‘Our court proceedings relate to Mr Pennings alone, and we were proactively trying to avoid disrupting his family where possible. These activities were legally undertaken.
‘We are unapologetic for exercising our legal rights and we will continue to use all legal means available to us to protect ourselves, our employees and contractors from individuals or groups who act unlawfully.’
Similar attempts to use the courts to crack down on those who criticise or question the Adani Group have been used in India.
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A senior Indian journalist, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, has been the subject of a long-running defamation case mounted by an Adani company in the home state of group founder, Gautam Adani. Even though a court has determined that the offending story required only minor modifications, and even though Adani has dropped other defendants from the 2017 litigation, Adani has pursued the case against Paranjoy. In January 2021, a court in Mundra (the location of Adani’s biggest single operation – the sprawling Mundra port and special economic zone) issued an arrest warrant against Paranjoy. Although a higher court subsequently suspended the warrant, it nevertheless required the 65-year-old journalist to travel over 1000 km from his home in Delhi to the Mundra court for hearings of the case, despite the obvious dangers to an older person from travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The use of this defamation case, the warrant and the requirement to travel constitute a clear case of persecution – to the point of being sadistic – against the veteran journalist.
As if this were not enough, Paranjoy is also the subject of a second defamation case mounted against him and others by Adani in September 2020. Again, the case was filed in a Gujarat court. Without hearing from Paranjoy and the other respondents, the Gujarati judge imposed a gag order on them. As a result, Paranjoy, Abir Dasgupta (formerly a frequent contributor to AdaniWatch) and NewsClick (an independent online news outlet that has frequently republished AdaniWatch stories) are prohibited from reporting on matters pertaining to the Adani Group. With businesses in ports, real estate, coal mining, power stations, solar power, gas, electricity transmission, edible oils, defence industries and airports, the Adani colossus reaches its tentacles into almost all aspects of life in India. The imposition of a ban on reporting of any of the group’s activities therefore constitutes a huge curtailment of press freedom that is contrary to India’s national interest.
AdaniWatch regards the attempts of the Adani Group to muzzle its critics and quash dissent to be abhorrent. Adani’s actions constitute a deplorable insult to the proud traditions of democracy and press freedom that have prevailed in India for decades.
The Adani Group is not the only entity attempting to crush freedoms in India.
At around 8 am on 9 February 2021, India’s Enforcement Directorate launched simultaneous raids on the headquarters and homes of key staff of NewsClick. Officials said the extraordinary series of raids related to allegations of money laundering and ‘foreign remittances.’ However, they were widely seen as intimidation of a media organisation that had given airplay to those critical of the Modi Government, such as the millions of farmers that have been protesting against agricultural deregulation for the past three months. Authorities in India have also cracked down on YouTubers and the Caravan publication using similar pretexts.
The treatment of NewsClick editor-in-chief and founder, Prabir Purkayastha, and his wife was particularly harsh. According to an interview with The Wire, the raid on the Purkayastha home lasted 113 hours – almost five days! Allegations and selected pieces of information obtained in the raids were leaked by government to conservative media outlets that toe the government line. While the raid was in progress, these craven organisations ran stories of the unproven allegations even though NewsClick personnel were unable to respond, given the confiscation of their telecommunication devices. This was deliberate cruelty by the Modi government towards the elderly couple, clearly aimed at intimidating other journalists, editors and news organisation.
As Mr Purkayastha later said, ‘the process is the punishment’.
Meanwhile, the Delhi police had detained a young climate campaigner on the flimsiest of pretexts. Disha Ravi, 22 years old and described as an Indian equivalent of Greta Thunberg, was one of the founders of the Indian Fridays for Future movement. The police charged her with criminal conspiracy for having circulated a ‘tool kit’ for people wanting to support the farmers’ protests. Investigators referred repeatedly and disingenuously to the ‘tool kit’ as if it were an assemblage of sharp metallic objects and explosive devices rather than a document with talking points and hashtags.
In a refreshing expression of judicial common sense, a Delhi court granted Ms Ravi bail, saying that the police’s ‘scanty and sketchy’ investigation had failed to prove any violent intent on her part. One hopes that India’s courts will take a similarly enlightened approach to the claims against Paranjoy, NewsClick, Abir Dasgupta and the Caravan.