NEW DELHI: Economic and Political Weekly Editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta who resigned following a stormy Sameeksha Trust meeting has now become the target of a letter by the EPW Editorial Team levelling charges against the journalist. These range from paying higher remunerations to his ‘associates’ than to normal contributors, passing sexist remarks, and a “grave assault on the work culture” of the organisation. The editorial team’s letter does not contain any specific instances to substantiate the charges.

Speaking to The Citizen Thakurta, refused to be drawn into counter -allegations against others in EPW, and admitted that he was reluctant to speak on the issue.But was persuaded by The Citizen to speak and made the following points:

  • Thakurta, even as he was in the Sameeksha Trust meeting, had instructed his colleagues to pull down the Adani article following the Trustees directions and orders. He did so as Editor of EPW and while he was still in the meeting of the Trust that had pulled him up for responding to the legal notice from industrialist Gautam Adani’s lawyers on their behalf, without taking their permission. And as reported by The Citizen earlier, as punishment told him they would be appointing a co-editor, that he was no longer free to use his byeline, and that the article that had offended Adani and invited a legal notice, should be pulled down.

  • Thakurta called a meeting of the editorial team the next day to inform them about the resignation. Only one of the 40 odd who were present spoke, saying that while Thakurta should have given the article in question to the editorial desk for editing, the Trust too should not have had it taken off the EPW site.
  • Plugging his own stories is another charge Thakurta does not accept at all. He did break stories on corporate irregularities that were picked up by others. On the first day he joined EPW as Editor in April last year, he broke a story of the functioning of the coal mafia that mentioned the Ambanis, the Adanis and public sector companies. He said he rushed with through with this article, as the circular containing the details had reached about 50 different locations and he wanted the EPW to be the first to publish it. Incidentally at least 20 plus stories on corporate financial bungling have been published in EPW under Thakurta and not one of these has been denied.

  • As for paying some associates more than others, he gave two specific examples of two well known experts (whose names The Citizen is withholding) who had broken investigative stories. Given the limitations of EPW Thakurta had raised Rs 50000 to cover the costs, but after he resigned the donor did not release the money. So as of this day the two persons, one of whom broke the private corporation cartel story responsible for artificially raising the price of urad/arhar dal, have still not been paid.

Thakurta said that the one question that emerges from the report on Adani Power is why the government is silent about this? The Ministry of Finance along with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, according to the article, had processed an application for the refund of Rs 506 crores to Adani Power. Has this money been refunded, Thakurta asked? Why is the government silent about this? Why has there been no response? He said that he stood by his story and has the documents and evidence required to substantiate every detail.. The complete silence of the government about the article that had Adani reacting with a legal notice, fairly commonplace in journalism, is perhaps an indicator in itself.

The letter leaked to the media comes after a strong response to Thakurta’s resignation and the withdrawal of the Adani article by 155 scholars across the globe, along with Nobel Laureates Amartya Sen and Angus Deaton who issued a statement expressing their concerns about what was seen as an attack on press freedom. The Trustees, however, were not convinced and efforts by some scholars to mediate between the two sides have not really been fruitful. This letter by the editorial team to the trustees is the latest in the sad saga of EPW.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

Dear Trustees(Sameeksha Trust),

We write to you once again at a difficult time as members of the editorial staff of Economic and Political Weekly. We seek answers to some questions that concern the editorial autonomy of the magazine, the need for a channel of communication between the staff and Trustees,and would also like to explain the challenges we faced as an editorial team over the last 15months. We are aware that the Managing Trustee, Mr D N Ghosh will be meeting the staff on 27 July 2017. We are hopeful that our concerns will be addressed.

We wish to understand the circumstances under which the article “Modi Government’s ?500 Crore Bonanza to Adani Group Company ” (EPW , 19 June 2017) was asked to be deleted from our website (only one article was taken down, not two as has been widely misreported).The deletion of the article from our website is tantamount to the retraction of a published article. This is a serious matter, and editorially, to our knowledge, EPW has not had to resort to such a drastic step in recent times (except in one case of substantial plagiarism).

Mr Paranjoy Guha Thakurta instructed us via a phone call, during a Trustee meeting on the afternoon of 18 July 2017, to delete the article from our website. We followed the then editor’s instructions, as is expected of us, even as we were apprehensive. He also cancelled a “Corporate Investigations” special issue of 39 pages (which included the said article, among four other investigations) scheduled for the 22 July 2017 issue. The week’s issue was planned afresh immediately by the staff.

We are disturbed by these decisions all the more because the Sameeksha Trust is not known to interfere with EPW’s day-to-day editorial functioning.

We looked forward to the Trust’s statement to know why the article was retracted and to better understand the Trustees’ decision. The statement issued on 20 July (which was not sent to us) explained clearly the Trustees’ grievance with Mr Guha Thakurta, but did not address the removal of the article. There has been a lot of speculation among readers and contributors, and we have had no answers to offer them.

Up until March 2016, EPW was led by editors who oversaw the functioning of the organisation, the welfare of its staff, along with providing hands-on editorship. It would not be wrong to say that the EPW’s functioning depended heavily on the editor. Such a model has worked mainly because editors in the past had shown dedication, taken up the challenge, and provided outstanding leadership. Not every editor will meet the diverse requirements of EPW.

EPW’s institutional culture needs to be one that is mindful of keeping up with changing times, but must do so while retaining core values. The magazine will have to be taken into the future keeping its strengths in mind, while ensuring continuity. Like the rest of the print media, EPW is also grappling with rapid changes in the medium. The new editor will need support on how best to respond to these challenges, and various others.

Advice will be needed on raising finances among other things. There needs to be a set of advisors available to the editor and to the staff of EPW. A channel of communication and regular contact needs to be established between the Trust and the editorial staff. Other than Mr D N Ghosh who visits the office whenever he is in Mumbai, to the best of our knowledge no Trustee has visited us and met us over the past year and perhaps earlier.

Over the past 15 months, the editorial team of EPW has had to face several challenges. The biggest of these challenges was to safeguard the review process that was painstakingly built over many years. This has been under pressure from various quarters. Mr Guha Thakurta would repeatedly undermine the review process for reasons best known to himself, despite our repeated advice against such actions. He has done this for his associates, persons of influence, and has entertained partisan endorsements to research papers without following the review process and evaluating the merit of the article, which was completely unbecoming of the editor. Even Trustees should have no say in the review process, and should respect the editorial autonomy of EPW.

Mr Guha Thakurta also promised higher payments to certain authors (usually his old associates), which would have been 20 times higher than the token amounts paid to our contributors. These higher payments were resisted by EPW’s manager. These payments would probably have been made if Mr Guha Thakurta had continued as editor. This is yet another instance of unequal treatment of authors, and favouring of associates; all serious ethical concerns.

There has been a grave assault on the work culture in the EPW office, with many of us on staff being made to feel uncomfortable by inappropriate, sexual and sexist comments made by Mr Guha Thakurta.

In all, the egalitarian culture of the office had been compromised.

The other great challenge to the editorial team was about ensuring editorial oversight when the editor of the publication is himself an author. This was an odd situation (indeed, unprecedented for EPW) where the power and responsibility of editorial decisions (and the liability) lies with the editor – author, but the capacity for independent, unbiased judgement does not rest with the editor – author.

In fact, on Mr Guha Thakurta’s very first day in office he ensured the publication of his own article titled, “How Over-Invoicing of Imported Coal has Increased Power Tariffs” ( EPW, 4 April 2016), which was a unilateral decision. We tried to ensure that all authors are treated equally (with due consideration for marginalised causes and voices) and subjected to editorial oversight. Unfortunately, given the powers vested in the editor and his obstinacy, our views did not always prevail. Our failure on this count did put the reputation of EPW in jeopardy. This marked change in EPW’s work culture left many of us in the uncomfortable position of challenging the editor time and again.

We have been discussing these issues of due diligence and prejudice-free processes among ourselves, and had been taking corrective steps to check such misuse of power. We assure you that this experience has only strengthened our resolve to uphold the principles of editorial oversight for all authors without fear or favour.

We hope that the Trustees will address our concerns about the deletion of the article and our editorial independence, especially in today’s political environment, and take the utmost care in choosing the next editor.

Yours faithfully,

Members of the Editorial Team

Economic & Political Weekly