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

'Flawed' argument: Gandhi had minimal role, naval mutinies alone led to Independence

Counterview Desk Reacting to a Counterview  story , "Rewiring history? Bose, not Gandhi, was real Father of Nation: British PM Attlee 'cited'" (January 26, 2016), an avid reader has forwarded  reaction  in the form of a  link , which carries the article "Did Atlee say Gandhi had minimal role in Independence? #FactCheck", published in the site satyagrahis.in. The satyagraha.in article seeks to debunk the view, reported in the Counterview story, taken by retired army officer GD Bakshi in his book, “Bose: An Indian Samurai”, which claims that Gandhiji had a minimal role to play in India's freedom struggle, and that it was Netaji who played the crucial role. We reproduce the satyagraha.in article here. Text: Nowadays it is said by many MK Gandhi critics that Clement Atlee made a statement in which he said Gandhi has ‘minimal’ role in India's independence and gave credit to naval mutinies and with this statement, they concluded the whole freedom struggle.

BSF should take full responsibility for death of 4 kids in West Bengal: Rights defender

By Kirity Roy*  One is deeply disturbed and appalled by the callous trench-digging by BSF in Chetnagachh village under Daspara Gram Panchayat, Chopra, North Dinajpur District, West Bengal that has claimed the lives of four children. Along the entire stretch of Indo-Bangladesh border of West Bengal instead of guarding the actual border delineated by the international border pillars, BSF builds fences and digs trenches well inside the Indian territory, passing through villages and encroaching on private lands, often without due clearance or consent. 

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

How GMOs would destroy non-GMO crops: Aruna Rodrigues' key submissions in SC

Counterview Desk The introduction of Bt and HT crops will harm the health of 1 billion Indians and their animals, believes Aruna Rodrigues, who has made some 60 submissions to the Supreme Court (SC) during the last 20 years. As lead petitioner who filed Public Interest Litigation in 2005, during a spate of intense hearings, which ended on 18 January 2024, she fought in the Apex Court to prevent the commercialization of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Indian agriculture. 

Social justice day amidst 'official neglect' of salt pan workers in Little Rann of Kutch

By Prerana Pamkar*  In India’s struggle for Independence, the Salt Satyagraha stands as a landmark movement and a powerful symbol of nonviolent resistance. Led by Mahatma Gandhi, countless determined citizens walked from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in Gujarat. However, the Gujarat which witnessed the power of the common Indian during the freedom struggle is now in the throes of another significant movement: this time it is seeking to free salt pan workers from untenable working conditions in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK).

Corporatizing Indian agriculture 'to enhance' farmer efficiency, market competitiveness

By Shashank Shukla*  Today, amidst the ongoing farmers' protest, one of the key demands raised is for India to withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO). Let us delve into the feasibility of such a move and explore its historical context within India's globalization trajectory.

Jallianwala massacre: Why Indian govt hasn't ever officially sought apology from UK

By Manjari Chatterjee Miller*  The king of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, apologized in July 2023 for his ancestors’ role in the colonial slave trade. He is not alone in expressing remorse for past wrongs. In 2021, France returned 26 works of art seized by French colonial soldiers in Africa – the largest restitution France has ever made to a former colony. In the same year, Germany officially apologized for its 1904-08 genocide of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia and agreed to fund reconstruction and development projects in Namibia. .

A 'distorted narrative' of Indian politics: Congress failing to look beyond LS polls

By Prem Singh*  About 15 days ago, I told a senior journalist friend that there are not even two   months left for the Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi is roaming around on a delectation (tafreeh). The friend probably found my comment exasperating and replied that he is not on a delectation trip. The conversation between us on this topic ended there. 

Interpreting UAPA bail provisions: Is Supreme Court setting the clock back?

By Kavita Srivastava*, Dr V Suresh** The Supreme Court in its ruling on 7th February, 2024 in   `Gurvinder Singh v State of Punjab’ held that its own well-developed jurisprudence that "Bail is the rule and jail the exception" will not apply to those charged under the UAPA.

Livelihood issues return to national agenda ahead of LS polls: SKM on Bharat Bandh

Counterview Desk  Top farmers' network, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) has claimed big success of Grameen Bharat Bandh and industrial /sectoral strikes, stating, the “struggle reflected anger of farmers, workers and rural people across India”, adding, the move on February 16 succeeded in bringing back peoples’ livelihood issues in the national agenda just ahead of the general election to the Lok Sabha.