The decision of the Economic & Political Weekly - a hybrid between a commentary magazine and a social science research journal - to retract two articles that made allegations of corruption in the business practices of Adani Power without a legal fight will embolden other corporations to muzzle all criticism.

More egregious than the retraction of the articles was Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s decision to resign from the position of the editor. His resignation over differences with the members of the board of Sameeksha Trust, the publisher of EPW, will have a chilling effect on other editors when it comes to exposing the nexus between the government and big corporations.

The statement put out by the trustees suggests that effect of the resignation was not uppermost on their mind. On the one hand, they were upset at the editor’s unilateral decision to drag the journal into a legal case, and on the other, they were motivated by the desire to protect independence and the scholarly character of the journal. The latter will require a more structured response to this crisis at EPW.

From available reportage on the matter we know that Adani’s lawyers served a defamation notice, under sections 499 and 500 of IPC, on the editor, co-authors and Sameeksha Trust after the publication of the articles in the 17 June, 2017, issue of EPW. 

The notice demanded retraction of the articles, unconditional apology for unsubstantiated allegations, and that the journal cease future publishing of defamatory material on the company. One of the articles had alleged that the current government had changed rules for special economic zone (SEZ) with the intent to enable Adani Power to claim Rs. 500 crore refund on customs duty. The articles seemingly suggested that the central government had changed the rules because of the proximity between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gautam Adani, the chairman of Adani Group.

The editor of EPW, Thakurta, is a man with decades of experience in dealing with defamatory notices in response to his journalistic exposés. He is known to have not buckled under pressure from some of the biggest corporations in the country. He promptly engaged a lawyer and replied to the notice stating that the EPW and the co-authors can back the truth of every word in the article with documentary evidence. This was not surprising. Thakurta is the co-author of Sue the Messenger: How Legal Harassment by Corporates Shackles Reportage and Undermines Democracy in India. The book documents how big corporations in India are using strategic lawsuits or notices to silence their critics in the media and activists who speak on behalf of ordinary people and environment. 

Yet from the assertive tone of Adani’s notice and the audacious reply from Thakurta it seemed that this was going to end in the court. Many observers were looking forward to an epic legal battle between a prestigious journal led by its editor – who has been known as a tenacious investigative journalist – and a big corporation. Such cases are known to advance the laws on libel and defamation. But then in a surprise move the board of trustees led by its chairperson and managing trustee, Deepak Nayyar and D. N. Ghosh respectively, ordered the retraction of the articles and accepted the resignation of the editor.

We do not know the details behind the swift action taken by the board of trustees. However, the statement put out by the Sameeksha Trust uses very strong language. The statement says that the editor “committed a grave impropriety amounting to breach of trust”. The strong language gives some indication of the seriousness with which the trustees, who are some of the most prominent social scientists in India, saw the notice served on EPW that the publication of the articles had prompted.

The alleged impropriety was in the editor’s unilateral action to hire a lawyer and reply to the defamatory notice on behalf of the trust without consulting the managing trustee or the chairperson. It appears that the trustees were upset as the reply to the notice claimed that it was on the behalf of Sameeksha Trust and not just the editor and the co-authors of the articles.

However, did the decision of the editor to engage a lawyer and reply to the notice unilaterally rise to the level of “grave impropriety”? It could have been an error of omission on behalf of the editor who not only was confident about the veracity of the reporting, but from his experience saw the notice as more of a corporate bluster than a serious challenge to journalists’ who had taken due diligence. Moreover the language of the reply, which has now been removed from the EPW website, was robust and suggested that the editor was confident of prevailing in a trial.

Were the board members merely angry at the editor for appropriating a power that was never delegated to his office or did the board have some reservations about the editorial vetting process, especially as one of the co-authors of articles was the editor himself. The latter seems to be a possible factor as it has been reported in certain sections of the media that the trustees did not want the editor to publish articles under his name in the future, which precipitated the resignation.

Additionally, what leads to the second factor is that in the statement put out by the board members they say that “The EPW is a unique institution which has earned its reputation as an independent, impartial journal over five decades, for publishing scholarly articles –research-based academic writing and evidence-based public policy commentary on the issues of the time.”

The above-mentioned part of the statement suggests a possibility that the trustees were not happy with the publication of investigative journalistic pieces that may sometimes rely on making conjectures and express outrage based on only prima facie evidence, which in themselves might be not sufficient for making a scholarly argument. In terms of epistemic authority journalism is a first draft of investigation into a social reality, whereas, a research article warrants a much higher evidentiary standard drawing from validity and reliability of the data.

In journalism, potential for being accused of libel and defamation come as acceptable risks of the occupation. News media are prepared for it, and the courts often consider the fact that journalism operates in a different environment with deadlines and routines that allow a lower threshold of evidence. Whereas academic journals, a character emphasized on by the trustees in their statement, may not get the same level of deference from courts.

"Were the board members merely angry at the editor for appropriating a power that was never delegated to his office or did the board have some reservations about the editorial vetting process, especially as one of the co-authors of articles was the editor himself."

Journals rarely face demands for retraction of research articles because of defamatory notices; although it is quite common for journals to retract because of academic malpractice such as plagiarism, manufacturing of data and flawed analysis.

However, if the members of the board were concerned about protecting the academic research character of the journal they had chosen the wrong person to serve as the editor. The trust had appointed Thakurta in January 2016 after C. Rammanohar Reddy, its longtime editor, had resigned over differences with the board over the funding of a golden jubilee volume and a documentary.

While appointing Thakurta as the editor, the board celebrated his investigative journalism credentials. The members of the board should have expected such articles from him. If they did not want him to publish investigative reporting under his name, then they should have included that in the conditions of his appointment. Although I suspect, Thakurta would have not accepted the job under those conditions.

If the trustees wanted EPW to move more in the direction of a scholarly journal they should have looked for a person with a different background. One hopes that the trustees will take the responsibility to look for a new editor keeping with the character – which is different from a hybrid between a magazine and a journal that it is now – they have themselves articulated for the journal in their statement. Preferably they must look for someone with a background in academic social sciences to serve as the editor-in-chief of the journal. Additionally, if they are concerned about editorial vetting of articles and independence they must introduce a mandatory double-blind peer review process for research articles and scholarly evidence-based commentaries.