SLAPP: How political parties and powerful corporations are destroying free media?

Free speech and expression is one of the crucial fundamental rights enshrined under the Constitution of India. Media, the fourth pillar of democracy, operates extensively on this constitutional principle. Since time immemorial, media has played a vital and significant role in highlighting the appalling side of the democracy business in India.

Top-level corruption in a central ministry or a faulty environmental clearance obtained by a powerful private corporation, all of it has been reported by the media houses. With the rapid advancement in internet and social media technology, new forms of media have exacerbated the process of information flow, which have exposed wrongdoers to much more risk of investigative journalism or sting operations.

However, there remains an element of doubt or credibility in reporting of various media houses. As today, most of them are being driven by some or the other kind of propaganda. Most of the media houses (even digital portals, Twitter handles and Facebook pages) has decided to align themselves to a particular political ideology and promote the vested interests of their masters, who might be helping them in some or the other way.

Post 2014, the nation witnessed a number of incidents related to media censorship. Needless to say, Modi government has been watchful of ‘stakeholders of democracy’ who have been critical of them, their party propaganda, political strategy or policy initiatives. It includes media, academic institutions, social activists, youth and women leaders. But, this does not mean that before Modi government, no political party ever practiced media gagging. Not to forget the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi (during the emergency).

Not only political parties but big corporate houses have equally been active in ensuring censorship on media, wherever or whenever it seemed obvious to them.

And the biggest tool in actualizing the effort (by both political parties and corporates) is strategically filing high-value defamation suits against media. In legal language, it is known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

Defamation simply means maligning someone’s image or reputation without any substantial claims or evidence.  Defamation cases, which could be filed under both criminal and civil law, are usually employed to muzzle the media. While a criminal defamation complaint carries the threat of imprisonment for a journalist, a civil suit could cripple a media house financially.

The best thing (from the point of view of the complainant) is that even if these cases do not end in the favor of the complainant, the slow and tedious proceedings are enough to harass the other party and when you are rich corporation or a powerful politician, you make it worse for the other party.

Anil Ambani’s Reliance Infrastructure Limited and others filed a Rs. 7,000 crores defamation suit against The Citizeneditor Seema Mustafafor her publication’s coverage on the controversial issue of Rafale Aircraft deal, in which the Narendra Modi government is alleged to have negotiated an agreement that allowed a private company to profit at the expense of the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

Ambani’s company has also filed other suits. It filed a Rs 10,000 crores defamation case against NDTVfor its coverage of the same controversy. The company has also filed hefty suits against several Congress politicians and Sanjay Singh of the Aam Aadmi Party.

In 2017, Jay Shah, son of the Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah, sued the news website The Wire for Rs 100 crores. The online publication did a story which raised questions on the business dealings and financial transactions of the company owned by Jay Shah.

The latest addition to the list is a case against The Caravan (a journal on politics and culture) for its report on NSA Ajit Doval’s younger son, Vivek Doval.  Vivek Doval filed a criminal defamation complaint against a news magazine for allegedly publishing a defamatory article. The article claimed that Vivek Doval was running a hedge fund, in the Cayman Islands, a known tax haven, whose promoters are of dubious antecedents. The report also raised questions on the role and involvement of his elder brother, Shourya Doval, who is now active in the political circles and has been part of few political meetings in his home state, Uttarakhand.

The community advocating for free speech (consisting of bloggers, lawyers, activists, students) has made repeated demand to Parliament for amending the law of defamation in India in order to curb down the growing phenomenon of SLAPPs. Socially and legally, it limits the scope of meaningful discussion and investigative reporting which is aimed at enhancing accountability and transparency in the highest political and business forums. In fact, the low ranking of India in the Press Freedom Index, justifies the whole scenario.

Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” — Henry Anatole Grunwald, 1922-2005.

Image 1: Scroll

Image 2: PEN South Africa

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