Skip to main content

Legal notices to journalists meant as intimidation tactic, way to harass reporters through legal fees, time spent to respond

Paranjoy Roy Thakurta
By Aayush Soni, CPJ India Correspondent
On July 5, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who recently resigned as editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, and his colleagues Advait Rao Palepu and Shinzani Jain, received a notice from Thaker and co., a law firm representing Adani Power Ltd, that threatened legal action over a story published the month before.
While legal notices can result in civil or criminal defamation cases, journalists in India say companies are increasingly using them as part of a tactic known as Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, in an effort to intimidate or censor them.
Thakurta told CPJ that the point of the legal notices isn't to take journalists to court, but to serve as an intimidation tactic and way to harass reporters through legal fees and time spent responding to notices and appearing in courts sometimes hundreds of miles from where their newspapers are based.
This isn't the first time that lawyers acting on behalf of large corporations have threatened legal action against Thakurta. In Sue The Messenger, a book jointly authored by him and fellow journalist Subir Ghosh, Thakurta details how companies have tried to use SLAPPs against him and other journalists over reports alleging connections between the government and large corporations.
As well as the notice over Adani Power Ltd, Thakurta said he has received letters threatening legal action from lawyers representing Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries; Anil Ambani, chairman of the ADAG group, and Subrata Roy, founder of the Sahara India group.
The notice sent to Thakurta and his colleagues at Economic and Political Weekly was filed over a June 17 story that criticized the government for changing rules over economic zones and which alleged that Adani Power benefited financially from the changes. Thakurta told CPJ the article did not allege any wrong doing on the part of Adani Power, and that the magazine tried to seek comment from the company in advance of publishing.
The magazine removed the article after receiving the legal notice. He resigned from Economic and Political Weekly because of differences of opinion with the Sameeksha Trust, which runs the magazine.
Interview with Thakurta:
***
How effective are SLAPPs as a form of censorship?
By their very nature they're aimed at sending a chilling effect. Others feel intimated and scared of following footsteps of those who are recipients. Now, the effect is that since defamation can be a criminal offence, people believe that this is bound to happen. That a person will be put behind bars.
In Sue The Messenger, you said that sending legal notices to journalists is a familiar tactic that some corporations employ. Why don't corporations follow up with filing a legal case?
Companies in India and across the world often don't stop at sending legal notices but also [start legal proceedings] against those who disagree with them and allege that their actions are defamatory. Companies and organizations sue writers and critics, not with the intention of winning a lawsuit in a court of law but with the intention to intimidate and harass. Fighting a case in court or even replying to a legal notice often means that you have to spend time and money. [Legal cases can be filed at courts] in different parts of the country therefore, the individuals against whom cases have been filed, have to travel long distances and spend money to appear. In India in particular, the long arm of the law is really long and the wheels of justice grind very slowly. Therefore litigation can often be drawn out, especially if litigants or those who support them have deep pockets. They can engage the services of eminent lawyers who charge fancy fees, which result in the litigant having an advantage over the person against whom the case has been filed. This often results in a chilling effect that dissuades others from saying, publishing or speaking anything that might go against the interests of a person or company who has already filed a SLAPP suit against someone else. [Journalists and publishers] don't want to go through this period where they have to reply to legal notices, find lawyers to work for them at low prices, and travel distances to appear in court.
What effect have SLAPPs had on journalists in India?
[For] organizations or media groups that depend on advertisers and sponsors for the bulk of their earning, there is a natural reluctance to bite the hand that feeds them. If Company A is a big advertiser in a particular newspaper or TV channel, it is most unlikely that a journalist receiving information, which could be critical of the promoters of that company, will see light of day. And what I say of large private advertisers is also true of governments. There are newspapers, websites and TV channels who may claim that they are independent but what they put out and often what they do not put out, reveals a certain bias, a certain political leaning. So what is true of large corporates is also true of media organizations that have direct or indirect, covert or overt, affiliation with political parties or individuals owing allegiance to political parties. Across the world, if large conglomerates control media organizations, there would be this kind of subtle self-censorship that prevails. In India, there is adequate evidence to indicate that the role and influence of big corporate entities has become stronger.
In your view, is there a legal or political remedy to deter corporations from sending these notices?
This isn't an easy question to answer and there have to be multiple ways forward. One way could be to challenge the judgment of the Supreme Court and make a plea for decriminalization of defamation. [Editor's note: Under Indian law, criminal defamation carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.] I don't know when and if that will happen. Be that as it may, it's important to be transparent and I speak here in my personal capacity. One of the reasons why I haven't been taken to court is because I've tried my level best to be factually correct. I think in India and across the world, truth is the best defense. If in whatever is put out in the public domain in any medium, your facts are correct and you've done the due diligence and gatekeeping to ensure factual accuracy, if you're fair, balanced and objective, I think that would dissuade large corporates from legally proceeding against their critics. This could be one way to ensure that you're not placed behind bars.
---
*Independent journalist in New Delhi who has written for Indian and international outlets. Source: https://cpj.org/blog/2017/07/qa-indian-editor-explains-how-threat-of-legal-act i.php

Comments

TRENDING

World Bank clarifies: Its 26th rank to India not for universal access to power but for ease of doing business

By Our Representative
In a major embarrassment to the Government of India, the World Bank has reportedly clarified that it has not ranked India 26th out of 130 countries for providing power to its population. The top international banker’s clarification comes following Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal’s claim that India has “improved to 26 position from 99” in access to electricity in just one year.

"Misleading" satellite images being shared on Balakot surgical strike on Jaish camp

By Dr Vinay Kate*
With every passing day more questions are being raised about the surgical strike India did in Balakot as a response to Pulwama attacks. So far the Indian media has claimed mass casulaty of 300+ terrorists of Jaish-e-Mohammad in this surgical strike, but there is hardly any report from foreign media about the same.

Extreme repression, corporate loot, cultural genocide "characterise" India's tribal belt

Counterview Desk
As Lok Sabha polls approach, there is considerable ferment in one section of the population -- India's Adivasis, forming about 8.6 per cent of India's population. Things became particularly critical following the February 14, 2019 Supreme Court order, allegedly seeking to evict lakhs of tribals from their forest lands.

Industry in India "barely growing", export growth 0%, whither moral anchors?

Counterview Desk
In a sharp critique of the Modi government, the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), one of world renowned economist Prof Kaushik Basu, who is Professor of Economics and Carl Marks Professor of International Studies at Cornell University, has told students at the IIM-A’s 54th Annual Convocation on March 16, 2019 that they have a “special responsibility” on their shoulders, “the responsibility to reject narrow sectarianism, uphold scientific thinking, openness to new ideas, and freedom of speech.”

Gujarat model? Industrial effluents "invade" borewells, discharge coloured water in farms

By Rajiv Shah
In a major embarrassment for Gujarat model, of the 21 samples taken by officials of the state government's environmental watchdog Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) in two villages of Vadodara district and analyzed by its laboratory in Gandhinagar, the state capital, to find out pollution level in groundwater, 16 were assessed as highly contaminated – these were, in fact, found to be discharging reddish, brownish, reddish, or yellowish water.

Refugees as criminals? US govt report blames Amit Shah for calling Bangladeshis termites

Counterview Desk
The chapter “Freedom of Movement” of the US State Department’s “India 2018 Human Rights Report”, released recently, has criticized BJP chief Amit Shah for terming alleged Bangladeshis who may be in Assam as “termites”, because their names were struck down from the list of National Register of Citizens, under preparation in the state.
Pointing out that four million residents were excluded from Assam’s final draft list, leading to “uncertainty over the status of these individuals, many of whose families had lived in the state for several generations”, the report regrets, the Indian law does not even contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees like Rohingiyas as “any other foreigners.”
“Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to forced returns and abuse”, the report says.
Text of the Freedom of Movement chapter: The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, a…

Mental health: India's 95% patients "deprived" of medical care, treatment gap 70%

By Moin Qazi*
Among the many challenges India faces, the most underappreciated is the ongoing mental health crisis. Mental illness is actually India’s ticking bomb. An estimated 56 million Indians suffer from depression, and 38 million from anxiety disorders. For those who suffer from mental illness, life can seem like a terrible prison from which there is no hope of escape; they are left forlorn and abandoned, stigmatized, shunned and misunderstood.

Congress would win just 9 of 26 Lok Sabha seats: Gujarat Assembly segment-wise analysis

By Rajiv Shah
Even as the Congress plans its first working committee meet in Gujarat on February 28 after an almost 58 year gap, there is reason to wonder what is in store for India’s grand old party in a state which has been long been a BJP bastion – in fact ever since mid-1990s. Ahead of the then assembly polls in late 2012, talking with me, a senior Gujarat Congress leader, currently Rajya Sabha MP, frankly said he saw no reason why Congress would win.

"Pro-corporate" Supreme Court order on FRA would further marginalize Adivasis

By VS Roy David, JP Raju*
For millions of Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers February 13, 2019 will go down in history as the day of apocalypse. This is like the proverbial Black Friday where millions of most marginalized people of India were ordered by malicious anti-people draconian Supreme Court order depriving them the life and livelihood by evicting them from their habitats.

Financial inclusion? Not micro-loans; India's poor "need" investment in health, education

By Moin Qazi*
India has grown into a global powerhouse. Its economy is soaring but the picture on the ground is still quite arid. The green shoots that you see are only a patch of its landscape. Most Indians are hapless victims of inequity. India is one country where intense poverty abounds in the shadow of immense wealth.