Stopping The Gas Wars
Reliance Industries sues Gas Wars’ authors, demands the book be “destroyed”. The media and lovers of freedom of speech remain silent. Why?
“How is it that this book was allowed to be published and not pulped in the first place?” Forsooth, this question posed by former petroleum secretary, TNR Rao at the launch of journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s book, Gas Wars – Crony Capitalism and Ambanis, has turned out to be prophetic. A day after the book was formally launched at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre on April 15, 2014, Reliance Industries Ltd sent a legal notice to Guha Thakurta and the book’s co-authors, Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri. The legal notice sent by law firm Khaitan and Co LLP begins with a disclaimer that Reliance has “highest regards for constitutional rights including Freedom of Speech”.
Despite this proclaimed love of freedom of speech,RIL wants all existing copies – hard copy and online versions – of the book which it refers to as a “pamphlet” to be destroyed and any further publication, distribution or circulation to be stopped. RIL also wants all the publicity material about the book to be destroyed and has demanded an “unconditional public apology…in the form and manner acceptable” to RIL for “having published and disseminated false and grossly defamatory material” against Reliance.
Apart from the authors of the book, the notice has been sent to Authors Upfront and FEEl Books Private Ltd, the e-book publisher and distributors of the book, Flipkart and Amazon.in for “acting as electronic distributors” of the book. Deepshikha Shankar of Foundation for Media Professionals has also been sent a notice for forwarding an e-invite for the launch of the book.
In a statement shared with Newslaundry, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta made the following points in response to the legal notice.
1. The book, GAS WARS has been more than fair in providing versions of events, circumstances and controversies based on research made from various public documents, opinions of individuals available in the public domain, including media reports etc.
2. The authors, being journalists, are exercising their right to free expression enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.
3. This communication is being made without prejudice to the author’s rights and privileges as per law. The notice is being reviewed by our legal experts and an appropriate response will be provided.
As for Deepshikha Shankar being sent the notice Guha Thakurta says, “It is not just sad but ridiculous. She forwarded the mail not as a representative of the Foundation for Media Professionals but in her personal capacity. She has an extensive mailing list and I requested her to forward the invitations. She merely forwarded the electronic e-mail”. When we contacted her and asked if she had pre-empted a situation like this she refused to comment. Manish Purohit of Authors Upfront told Newslaundry, “The right to withdraw the book solely lies with the author who is also the publisher of the book. Freedom of expression is our fundamental right. Our lawyer is perusing the notice, an appropriate response would be given in due course as per the legal process”.
We also spoke to the RIL spokesperson, Tushar Pania, who confirmed that a legal notice has been sent but refrained from answering any other questions.
Despite the brazenness with which RIL has named all and sundry related with the book however tenuous their connection may be, the media has been quite slow in picking up the story. First, hardly anyone covered the main event. While the major news channels gave the event a miss, a section of the print media published the story only after RIL sent the legal notice to the authors.
The book launch took place on April 15, 2014. The Times of India published an article headlined – Reliance serves legal notice on ‘Gas War’ authors – on April 17, 2014. Mint published an article with the same headline on its website in the evening on the same day. Subsequently, The Hindu published an article with the basic facts. Only The Telegraph reported the story on April 15, before RIL had sent the notice. On the online platform, Moneylife has been reporting on the book and related issues even before the release of the book. Outlook published extracts of the book before the book launch event.
Except for a few journalists such as Sucheta Dalal, Managing Editor of Moneylife.in and former editor of Hindu, Siddhartha Varadarajan, media professionals have desisted from making any comments on either the content of this book or the notice from RIL. The enthusiasm shown by the media in criticising Dinanath Batra and Penguin’s decision to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book is missing in this case.
It is quite odd that the media should turn away from reporting on this book. Pre-empting the argument that book launches aren’t of prime import in the news world, we can’t ignore the fact that the media quite extensively reported on both Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister and P C Parakh’s Crusader or Conspirator? These are books of national import which discuss the Manmohan Singh regime and are quite critical of the Prime Minister. Similarly, Guha Thakurta’s book also raises question on the PM’s integrity saying, “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been accused of changing ministerial portfolios at the behest of the Reliance group”.
Guha Thakurta says, “I would have been happier if there was more media coverage of the launch event. But I am not surprised given the fact that large sections of the media in India seem reluctant to put out information or highlight views that are not complimentary towards Reliance Industries Ltd, which is India’s biggest corporate entity in the private sector, which happens to be headed by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man”.
Ironically, Guha Thakurta’s book chronicles all such reports by media organizations which have repeatedly published reports on RIL and its hold over gas reserves. Sucheta Dalal, while speaking at the book launch, pointed out a pattern in the reports that appear in the book. Terming the pattern as “hit and run journalism” Dalal said that news stories against Reliance are never followed up. Reflecting the same sentiment, Siddhartha Varadarajan too spoke about how during his stint with TOI, he faced problems in publishing a three-part series on Reliance and Panna Mukta oil field.
This is not the first instance of the Ambanis not being pleased by an unpleasant word being spoken or written against them. In 1998, Hamish McDonald’s book on Dhirubhai Ambani – The Polyester Prince was not sold in India. It is now available in India for the last couple of years with a new name and some missing chapters. In 2012, legal notices were served to news channels which telecast Arvind Kejriwal’s press conference in which he made allegations against Reliance. It would be safe to say that RIL does not like dissent.
Yet, thanks to RIL’s legal notice, the book might soon be selling like hot samosas going by the buzz it’s making online.
It seems RIL might have just helped Guha Thakurta’s cause. Stemming criticism in the digital age isn’t as easy in 2014 as it was in 1998.