INTERVIEW

'I would rather set example for my 13-year-old than be afraid': An investigative journalist explains

Josy Joseph's book, A Feast of Vultures, has received legal notices.

It's not a surprise that senior journalist Josy Joseph's first book has attracted legal notices. Joseph has spent years investigating and reporting on the nexus between business and politics. In fact, Joseph explicitly wrote A Feast of Vultures, to cover stories from modern India that "never see the light of day" – not least because of the fear of legal reprisal.

An extract from the book that focused on alleged links between Dawood Ibrahim, the head of a criminal syndicate, and Naresh Goyal, the founder chairman of Jet Airways, has become the subject of legal notices sent by the airline company to Joseph, Outlook magazine, which published the extract, and HarperCollins, the book's publisher.

It probably won't be the last either. The book attempts to expose the dirty underbelly of modern India, from arms dealers to mining companies to the underworld. It even name-checks the Ambanis. But Joseph isn't scared. "Every word in the book is backed by documents," he said. "I’m ready for it if there is any litigation, I think it would be a great fight to have."

Excerpts from an interview with the author:

Where did the idea for this book come from?
I used to be very frustrated that we are not having an honest conversation in the country, from TV studios to a large portion of the mainstream media. In mainstream journalism work, there are a lot of constraints. These aren't just a lack of time to carry out investigations or put together the proof, but also various factors that influence the media house, these may be promoter interests plus political pressure.

When I started working on my book 8-9 years ago, I wanted to make sure I could show the unvarnished reality of India that I got to experience everyday.

What made you think that a book might be subject to any less pressure?
I decided that, if I was going to do this, that in the book I couldn’t have exercised any censorship. I had to be honest to my reader, truthful to the fact. I wanted to tell the truth to the extent possible, and definitely without compromising because I know someone or am afraid of someone.

Still, even if you are not afraid the publisher might be concerned?
I am not unduly worried about anyone threatening legal action. I don’t want to speak about specific legal notices, but I am willing and capable of dealing with any such litigation.

Every word in the book is backed by documents. I must have collected thousands of pages of documents in the course of my research over the last decade. I have put together 8-10,000 documents, either from the government or from courts. On top of that, my book has been legally vetted a couple of times.

I’m not peddling gossip in the book. I’m writing what is there in documents. Actually, I had to cut out a lot of other stuff because it is not in documents. When one is working on a book like this, there is a lot more that can be produced, but I cut out anything that couldn't be proved or backed up.

When you first pitched the idea to publisher, were they concerned about legal repercussions?
It didn't work like that. Back when I completed my Masters, I decided I wanted to look at Modern India and how institutions operate. I worked with a part-time researcher, and we collected hundreds of thousands of documents. But then I realised that I'm not a good academic, and I'm a reasonably good journalist, so I decided – let me just do journalism.

What I had done though was try to create a structure to interpret modern India. I wanted something that would get my reader to feel what I go through: To feel the angst that I had been feeling when I reported on India, the urge to come out and say, things cannot go on like this.

So I developed this structure, and then I had an editorial agent help me tighten it even further, and then when I finished the book it was given to publishing houses and there was a round of bidding.

All the publishers were very kicked about the book, and when HarperCollins got it, they did two rounds of legal vetting. It was not a reckless game, it’s deliberate journalism. I hope people acknowledge the fact that this is investigative journalism. There’s a large amount of research that went into it.

Other books that were also backed up by documents have still faced pressure in India. What makes you so confident that this one would be different?
I think our country still has a very free judiciary. I am not unduly worried about any legal implications. I am very determined that if there is something that comes my way, I will fight it till the highest court.

Because a time comes in each one's life, when we have to fight for ourselves individually. You have to decide, what is it that matters to you most? Money? Friendship? Or is it something more?

I'm the father of a 13-year-old girl. I would rather set an example for her than let my friends in the industry be happy or be scared of someone. I'm ready for it, if there is any litigation, I think it would be a great fight to have.

That's a strong position to take. What sort of impact do you hope the book will have?
I wrote the book for the younger people. I think we owe it to the next generation, the beneficiaries of the post-liberalisation economic growth, we owe it to them to ensure that India is a more merit-driven society.

We are all busy being EMI slaves. I was just unhappy with it. It can't go on. Our median age is young, and when 50% of your country is under 25 years of age, you have to ask, what are we creating for them? We are assaulting every democratic institution from every angle there is. Is this what we want to leave for them?

I don't know about impact. I didn’t have everything planned out. But all writers, whether they produce something mediocre like my book or great writing, know that it is very lonely work. It's not even something you can share with your partner every day.

The book just grew within me, since the kind of journalism I do – the investigative journalism that shows me just what is happening to this country – left me angry.

You're no stranger to legal notices, considering your long journalism career, but what do you feel about free speech in the current climate?
Very honestly, I’ve been in Delhi for 25 years, and I’ve never seen this level of self-censorship in public discourse. Ever. The worst is the self censorship that reporters are subjecting themselves to, and the distortion of facts. I hope it’s a short-lived phenomenon. In a young country like ours, you cannot suppress dissent. At least not forever.

It's an embarrassing thing for journalists, though. We've forgotten our duty and become lapdogs of the establishment. Some of us will have to stand up and fight, and be firm about values. It is when we stand up, then things will change.

People will always say that free speech was assaulted in the past as well.
That's true, but this is different. When I did stories against the UPA (the previous government,) nobody turned around and said, 'you're a BJP man, or a Communist, or a Christian.' Today, when I do a story against the government, the first thing I hear is 'You're a Christian, a Sonia Gandhi agent, from the Vatican.' That is sickening, and it speaks volumes.

But I think it's a short-lived thing. I hope that it will change.

You have been in journalism for decades and know how to deal with legal notices and threats. What would you tell younger people who hope to report on the same things, but don't have experience?
When you see the keyboard, whatever comes on the fingertips, whether it is tears or anger, let it flow through. If you start thinking about consequences, you cannot do a truthful job. Be truthful to facts, and let us not be afraid of people with billions of dollars or political masters.

Read an excerpt from Joseph's book, A Feast of Vultures, here.

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