The Adani Group’s pursuit of journalists and media outlets has intensified, with lawsuits initiated in two courts in Gujarat, the home state of Gautam Adani. These actions follow other defamation cases by Adani against activists, journalists and media platforms in India. The journalists concerned have been legally obliged to travel vast distances to attend court sessions in remote parts of India, despite dangers posed by the pandemic. These tactics follow the use of arrest warrants, gag orders, household raids and surveillance by authorities or Adani entities against critics of the Group’s business activities. Meanwhile, Gautam Adani is reported to have become Asia’s richest man.
On 3 August 2021, the company Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (‘Adani Ports’) filed a defamation case against ‘Economic Times’ editor Bodhisatva Ganguli as well as journalists Pavan Burugula and Nehal Chaliawala. The case was filed in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gautam Adani’s home state of Gujarat. The allegedly defamatory story, published in June, said that a government regulatory body had frozen the accounts of three offshore companies that together held nearly US $6 billion worth of shares in Adani Group companies.
Then, on 20 September 2021, a criminal case was filed in an obscure Gujarat court by Adani Transmission Ltd against journalists Latha Venkatesh and Nimesh Shah as well as TV18 Broadcast Ltd. The effect of this filing was to compel the journalists concerned to travel to a remote location in Gautam Adani’s home state of Gujarat to defend themselves against the claim, which pertained to the same stories as the above case. In criminal matters, personal appearance is required before the court for each hearing.
Latha Venkatesh of CNBC TV18 is one of the most respected business journalists in India. She was summoned to Ahmedabad to discuss the story. Venkatesh, who was 62 years old, sought exemption from travel, especially given the prevailing COVID pandemic and requested that questioning be done through video conferencing. Her request was denied twice and she was directed to physically appear before the Crime Branch official in Ahmedabad. Since there was a threat of arrest, she had no option but to travel to get her statement recorded. The Crime Branch officials also wanted Nimesh Shah, another senior journalist involved with the CNBC TV18 story, to appear before them. They reportedly expressed displeasure that he did not appear even after they were informed that Nimesh did not receive any notice from them.
The tactics employed make it clear that journalists and media houses that publish stories not to the Group’s liking are being harassed by those in authority.
One critic, who wished to remain anonymous, said that ‘it is regrettable that the police, instead of castigating the Adani Group, is acting as their hand maiden... the police and the judicial process (are putting) pressure on the media (to) discourage them from doing future stories on the Group and effectively pushing journalists towards self-censorship.’
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Other moves by Adani entities have also had a chilling effect on reporting of the Group’s activities. Examples include:
- A 2017 defamation case against veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. In January 2021, this resulted in an arrest warrant by a Gujarat court. Although the warrant was withdrawn, the then 65-year-old Paranjoy was still required to travel over 1000 km from his Delhi home to Gujarat at the height of the pandemic. Journalist groups, including Reporters without Borders, condemned the arrest warrant as a ‘despicable abuse of power and influence by the Adani Group’.
- In September 2020, an Ahmedabad court slapped a gag order on Paranjoy, fellow journalist Abir Dasgupta and independent outlet NewsClick, prohibiting them from reporting or publishing anything whatsoever on the Adani Group. As Adani has fingers in almost every imaginable pie in India, including airports, ports, logistics, data management, mining, power generation, power transmission, real estate, food, palm oil and defence industries, the order amounted to a crippling curtailment of freedom of speech. It has been learnt that the NewsClick portal and the two journalists will be challenging the gag order in a higher court.
- In January 2021, it was reported that an Adani company obtained a court order against a YouTube broadcaster preventing him from publishing reports of any kind pertaining to Adani until the next hearing of the case. The broadcaster, Vinay Dubey, had allegedly accused Adani Agri Logistics of building private railways and food-grain silos for the purposes of hoarding and profiteering. The Adani company claimed that the video had been published ‘to create civil unrest by instigating farmers and people at large’.
- A civil case launched against climate campaigner Ben Pennings in August 2020 alleged ‘a sustained campaign of harassment’ against the company’s business. Mr Pennings was the public face of Galilee Blockade, a community group dedicated to keeping the coal of Queensland’s vast Galilee Basin in the ground. In preparing for the court action, Adani secretly sought to raid the Brisbane home of Mr Pennings in order to obtain ‘confidential information’ it believed Mr Pennings had acquired. In October 2020, it was revealed that Adani had organised surveillance of the young family of Mr Pennings. A private investigator engaged by Adani covertly took photographs of Mr Pennings walking his nine-year-old daughter to school. Adani confirmed that surveillance had taken place. This revelation aroused widespread disgust and condemnation.
- In 2017, a team from the Australian current-affairs program Four Corners attempting to report on Adani’s activities at its flagship port of Mundra in Gujarat was effectively run out of town. After the crew was detained by local police, reporter Stephen Long said ‘our Crime Branch interrogation lasted on and off for about five hours – gradually ramping up as the police took calls and riding instructions from someone.’ They were warned that officers from intelligence agencies would be following up if they remained in Gujarat. Sixteen GB of camera footage were deleted by the police.
These moves by the Adani Group come on top of similarly stifling policies by the Modi government. In July 2021, for example, government authorities placed restrictions on international funding to 10 non-government organisations with operations in India. The NGOs are active in campaigns on climate change and human rights. As one of the prime developers of the coal industry in India, the Adani Group will be a major beneficiary of the government’s deliberate impairment of the climate campaign.
The power of the Adani Group in India seems to transcend politics. Even the country’s Supreme Court has been reported as consistently delivering verdicts that favour Adani. On 31 August 2020, a Supreme Court bench approved the awarding of ‘compensatory tariffs’ amounting to AUD$ 1.6 billion to Adani Power by other companies in the electricity business. One headline described this as a ‘final gift’ to Adani by a retiring Supreme Court judge. According to independent outlet NewsClick, this was the seventh favourable result for the Adani Group out of nine cases heard by this particular judge. It was not long after publication of this story that the gag order was applied to NewsClick.
In the meantime, media in India have reported on the colossal increase in the personal wealth of Gautam Adani, now said to be the richest man in Asia.