Bully tactics?

BY hoot| IN Opinion | 26/05/2013
In a very unusual move to put it mildly the Times Group sent a legal notice to the journalist who wrote the piece but not the newspaper which published it.
A HOOT comment on the litigious media leader. Pix: the defamation notice sent to Aparajita Lath
The owners of Bennett, Coleman and Co like to sue, or at least send out intimidating legal notices.  They do not pick on people their own size unless they feel considerably provoked. When The New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta profiled them last October in a piece called Citizens Jain they were not flattered and sent a long threatening letter charging that his article contained many falsehoods and that he had not spoken to their executives. Says Auletta, “The New Yorker assigned a factchecker, with my support, to check my piece and found no falsehoods and noted that I spoke with their top executives. Our lawyer sent a lengthy letter forcefully challenging their claims. This was several months ago, and that was the last we heard.”
Meanwhile the magazine took its time to publish a letter from the Times of India executive editor Arindam Sengupta rebutting some of the assertions made by Auletta with regard to the Times’ journalism, Medianet and Private Treaties. It appeared in the magazine’s letters column only this month.
Clearly BCCL chose not pursue a litigious route with The New Yorker which painted a colourful and controversial picture of the Jains, their media business and the kind of journalism their flagship publication pursues.  This shows that even when the company  does pick on big publications it eventually backs off.
What’s more interesting is what it did in India in response to an article in Mint on BCCL’s title fight with the Financial Times of London: Financial Times: Whose intellectual property?  In a very unusual move to put it mildly they sent a legal notice  to the journalist who wrote the piece but not the newspaper which published it. One of the questions the piece asked was whether the Times Group was “squatting” on the ‘Financial Times’ title.  Author Paranjoy Guha Thakurta fortunately has the support of the paper he wrote in and its legal department, should he need it.
Then to carry the intimidation further the Group  sent another legal notice alleging defamation and threatening both civil and criminal action to a law student,  Aparajita Lath who wrote about the Financial Times  issue and referred to Thakurta’s piece on the blog SpicyIP where intellectual property rights issues are discussed.. A National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) student, she too has plenty of support from the founder of this blog, a Ministry of HRD Chair Professor of IP Law Shamnad Basheer.  His frequently sarcastic  response to the legal notice rebuts the law firm’s allegations point by point and threatens counter legal proceedings against the law firm/BCCL for character assassination.
Blogger Lath also referred to Guha Thakurta’s interview with lawyer Harish Salve in her blogpost. Salve said the litigation was “contrived”  and yet another example of “clever lawyering”. No letters charging defamation were presumably sent to him.
So here is a media house which is averse to factual free speech and is not above trying to squash individuals who discuss the facts of a case, as they are.  Like the rest of the big press fraternity in India which self censors its own doings the Times Group takes a dim view of any critical reporting on its own publications and businesses. An early blog called Mediaah which energetically reported stories emanating from the Times shut down after it was issued a legal notice by the group.
And among others who have been sent legal notices seeking Rs 100 crore in damages are an online publication called The Weekend Leader ( in 2011) and the Hoot (also in 2011). The former for an article it carried related to the Chennai Times of India’s coverage of the Mullaiperiyar dam controversy. The latter for asking how a TV crew from Times Now happened to be present when lawyer Prashant Bhushan was being beaten up in his chamber by goons.
Legal notices of this kind fall in the category of SLAPP suits. ( strategic lawsuit against public participation). These are intended to censor and intimidate critics. As the accompanying article points out, these are on the rise in India. The net effect will be one of inhibiting free speech and increasing self censorship. A strong legal movement which seeks to counter the threat from SLAPP suits by offering  its victims legal defence is needed, if large corporations  including media corporations are not to stifle dissent in India.  
The Times of India has on occasion  mounted an eloquent defence of free speech. It should consider gracefully extending  that to its own critics if it is not to be labeled a bully.
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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

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