On July 10, 2015, Vantage, the web-exclusive section of The Caravan magazine, carried a piece by staff writer Krishn Kaushik. Based on in-house email leaks of the Essar group, which showed how the conglomerate attempted to manage journalists and politicians, the story was about how former Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee had allegedly – first as finance minister and then as president – pressed the corporate house to give a job to his granddaughter and two other people known to him.
Over the next few weeks, starting July 20, Vantage published three articles on how, in 2010, Essar purportedly gave iPads to 195 politicians, bureaucrats and journalists as Diwali gifts.
These revelations were part of the August 2015 cover story of The Caravan, a profile of the Essar group, which Kaushik was working on for the last few months.
Almost two weeks after the August issue hit the stands, on August 8, the Essar group sent a legal notice to the owner and some of the editors and reporters of The Caravan – one each for the cover story and the three Vantage pieces on Essar gifting iPads as a Diwali gift.
The notice by Essar alleged that The Caravan cover story had made “several innuendos and imputations against Essar and/or against its promoters with the intention to harm or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputations will harm the reputation of Essar and its promoters to defame them without any justification”.
To buttress its case, the notice went on to point out 12 instances, mostly quotes, in the 14,300-word cover story which “doesn’t contain fair and accurate information” and is against “public good”. The notice on the iPads story similarly charged the longform narrative magazine of making “confidential data” public.
The Caravan responded to both the notices on August 18. Defending the veracity ofthe cover story, the reply called the notice “a malicious, motivated and illegal attempt to suppress the truth”.The response also pointed out 19 facts on which neither the August 8 notice nor Manish Kedia, senior vice president, corporate affairs, Essar — who had replied to some of the questions emailed by the magazine – had anything to say.
Essar responded the next day, August 19, filing a civil defamation suit of Rs 250 crore on The Caravan: “a genuine pre-estimate of the damages suffered… considering ‘Essar’ has investments in various sector…across five continents and the worldwide goodwill and reputation that it holds.”
Curiously, Essar chose Ahmedabad to file the suit: the document says this is because not only the corporate house has “substantial business” there, but the “magazine is also available in Ahmedabad through subscriptions” as well as on the stalls. The first hearing of the case is on September 24.
Essar leaks received media attention early this year after The Indian Express first broke the story, but there has been a decline in the media’s interest in the leaks since. The Caravan, though, has reported on it as new revelations came to light and is currently the only media organisation following up the story. Could thelegal action, then, be construed as an attempt to prevent the magazine from reporting further on the leaks?
Vinod K Jose, executive editor of The Caravan, calls the law suit a case of “unprecedented anxiety”, because “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”.
But this is not the first time The Caravan will be fighting a law suit: in June 2011, the Indian Institute of Planning and Management filed a Rs 50 crore defamation suit in Silchar, Assam, against the magazine for a profile of its head ArindamChaudhuri. About two weeks ago, the Supreme Court transferred the case to Delhi, calling the IIPM litigation “bogus”.
As it often happens, though, the Rs 250 crore lawsuit might just make The Caravan cover story more popular – which is surely not what Essar would have wanted. “Since the lawsuit was filed, our cover story on Essar generated, on an average, twice the amount of traffic it got on the day the article was released online,” said Nikita Saxena, The Caravan’s web editor.