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By Filing A Lawsuit Against Caravan Magazine, Has Essar Actually Defamed Itself?

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By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

After reading a long article on Caravan‘s website during the weekend, I went on to see on Facebook a status update that said that Caravan was being sued for the same story. The revelations that the story makes were not all new but certainly important, especially so because the Mahan forests in Madhya Pradesh and Essar- both of them subject of the said story- repeatedly make news. In January last year, Greenpeace activists hung a huge banner on Essar Group’s corporate office in South Mumbai that read ‘We kill forests: Essar’. When the Supreme Court cancelled the allocation of 204 coal blocks in September, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) deemed the stage II forest clearance given to Essar-Hindalco’s Mahan Coal Ltd as null. Written by Krishn Kaushik, a staff writer at Caravan, the story went beyond ‘incidents’ to profile Essar and its promoters to show the systematic and persisting problems with Essar.

essar caravan defamation
The First Leaks

In February there came a series of reports, published first in the Indian Express, that showed that Essar had been handing out favours to politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists. The revelations, that came to be known as ‘Essar Leaks’, involved emails that were provided by a former employee of Essar. A public interest litigation was moved in the Supreme Court on the same day by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation asking for a court-monitored investigation. These revelations led Krishn Kaushik of The Caravan, a magazine that describes itself as “devoted to narrative journalism“, to an exploration of how corporate India functions and to further probing of the alleged nexus.

The only problematic aspect of the leaks could be a statement made by Essar at the time of publication of the Indian Express reports, which said that the leaked emails could be stolen data. Similar claims were made in a notice, this time citing an FIR registered in the matter, served to Caravan that asked it to “cease and desist from continuing to publishing any further article related to” the leaks, when it published a list of beneficiaries of Essar’s SOPs in late July. Surprisingly, the same notice claims that further inquiry conducted by Essar had led them to the knowledge of “a former employee” that “was responsible for the commission of the illegal activities, and the offences“.

However, when we contacted Essar to know whether there was any progress in the said complaint, whether Essar had come to know the identity of the “former employee“, and whether they still claim that the data being used by CPIL in its petition, by IE and Caravan in their reports is stolen, Manish Kedia, senior VP of Corporate Affairs, said on behalf of Essar, “This is a matter which is sub-judice and hence it is not appropriate for us to respond to your queries.” Seen in the light of all this information, there appears to be little connection between the alleged stolen data and the data being used in the reports and the petition. Caravan, in its reports as well as in its reply to the notice, has said that the whistleblower “was privy to the details” and Essar does not make any reference to the alleged theft in the next notice it served to Caravan. On the other hand, a tiny gossip piece published on June 22 in Mumbai Mirror suggested that the representatives of ‘one of the country’s leading business houses’ were trying to meet a ‘leading narrative journalism magazine’ to try to stop the publication of more exposés.

The Cover Story

The Caravan published a cover story this month, ‘Doing The Needful’, which was the result of about six months of reporting from across the country. The story puts together several facts that have already been in the public domain. For instance, a Wikileaks cable from 2010 had already made public a memo, with the subject “ANTI-MAOIST OPERATIONS IN CHHATTISGARH BEGIN: ACTIVISTS WORRY ABOUT POTENTIAL HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS“, what a “senior representative of Essar” had claimed to an American consular staffer, that Essar ‘pays the Maoists “a significant amount” not to harm or interfere with their operations; when the Maoists occasionally break this agreement and damage Essar property or threaten personnel, Essar sets different Maoist groups against each other to suppress the situation.’ The Caravan story puts this in context with the leaked emails, interviews with Shubhranshu Choudhary, a local journalist, with villagers, and a former director general of police in Chattisgarh to show how possible violations of law might have been made by Essar in acquiring land for its own interests. In a similar manner, several old reports are pieced together with new information gathered from the emails and interviews to bring forth a story that goes beyond being an information leak; thus making it a noteworthy piece of narrative journalism.

However, the first lot of the August issue of the magazine that came to the news stands “mysteriously went missing“, Mumbai Mirror reported on Tuesday, quoting a Delhi journalist. Also, on the 8th of this month, Caravan was served with another notice by Essar alleging that some of the statements made by Caravan in cover story were “false and defamatory”. The notice also asked Caravan to remove the story, failing which it held them “liable for all the consequences“. Soon after Caravan replied to the notice, Essar filed a civil defamation suit in the city civil court at Ahmedabad against it. The suit asks Caravan to pay damages to the amount of Rs. 250 crores. It also asks for a temporary injunction restraining the defendants from “the publishing, issuing, circulating, distributing or advertising in any manner” of any defamatory article concerning Essar. Meanwhile, while the identity of the whistleblower remains a secret, he has been receiving death threats from unspecified callers.

The Defamation Suit

A defamation suit usually requires the defendant to prove that the statements were true and were made for public good. There seems to be little contestation from Essar in its notice that the information in Caravan’s story is untrue. Confirming what is already evident from the story is Vinod K Jose’s statement to Newslaundry, “a lot of facts are already out, we just put them all together, and one of our finest reporters worked on it for six months – reporting from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mumbai, Delhi – trying to understand how this company works.” As some of the facts revealed in the story could be punishable under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, the story definitely works for public good. Add to that the fact that a PIL regarding the same revelations has been filed in the Supreme Court.

The suit then appears to be an attempt to muzzle free speech. While the leaks’ impact had waned amid the furore over Vyapam and Lalit Gate, Caravan’s new story brings it to the fore again and it has, without doubt, displeased some powerful people. That the whistleblower, despite his identity being fiercely kept secret, has been receiving death threats bears further testimony to the fact.

In 2011 IIPM too had sued Caravan after it profiled the controversial Arindam Chaudhuri. Defending its right to freedom of speech and expression as well as the quality of diligence and research employed by it in publishing the article, The Caravan had then said that “the suit that has been filed leads us to believe that the IIPM does not appear to have any desire to correct the record: instead it aims to prevent any publication of material that paints the IIPM in a light it does not approve of.” However, the article had to be removed following a court order while the case goes on. In acting in the same vein and trying to suppress the story, now Essar has defamed itself.

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