And THIS is how you deal with threats of defamation charges! The strange case(s) of Red FM and EPW

Red FM’s RJ Malishka features in a peppy video that went viral, mocking Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation (BMC) for the dismal lack of civic amenities and the havoc the rains can wreak in the city. In a lively parody of the popular Marathi folk song Sonu Tuza Mazyavar Bharosa Nahi Kay (Sonu, Don’t you Trust me?), she sang cheekily, Sonu, don’t you trust BMC?

Potholes, traffic jams, slow trains, all the woes of the Mumbaikar in the fabled rains of Western India.

But Shiv Sena which runs the BMC was not amused. Immediately the dutiful BMC sprung into action and in a random and routine check for mosquito breeding spots, zeroed in on Malishka’s home; lo and behold, finding Aedes mosquitoes (yes that exact breed) under a flower pot. A notice under section 381 B of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation (MMC) Act has been issued to her mother. The notice stated:

We have detected Aedes mosquitoes breeding (dengue transmitting mosquitoes) in the clay bowl kept under the plant pot kept in front of the door. Indoor breeding is also detected in plant pots kept in the window

But wait, there’s more. Yuva Sena members and corporators Sadanand Sarvankar and Amey Ghole, in a joint letter to the BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta, demanded that a Rs 500 crore defamation suit be filed against the channel. For of course, citizens complaining about lack of civic amenities in effect defame those in power. What a delightful scenario – a democratically elected government threatening to sue its citizens  for defaming it by pointing out its lack of delivery of basic amenities.

The law on Criminal Defamation is one of those colonial laws (like the one on Sedition) that has no place in a democracy. In effect it enables the powerful to shut down all criticism through the threat of burying critics under massive financial burdens. A suit of 500 crores, remember, is what our civic minded and anti-mosquito Shiv Sena members want slapped on Red FM channel.

Interestingly, Red FM has done this kind of campaign before. In 2013, Malishka decided to go to the “most menacing potholes across Mumbai and perform puja in an attempt to wake up the sleeping authorities.” The channel explained the idea behind the initiative as being

to take a tongue-in-cheek dig at the authorities and make them aware of their unfulfilled duties.

One puja was performed with the full participation of  Mahim corporator, Virendra Vishnu Thandle (or Tandel), belonging to the even more-right-of-Shiv Sena MNS.

Then the channel also invited Bombay Municipality Commissioner Sitaram Kunte to its studios. Kunte answered questions put forward by listeners and assured that the authorities are taking complete cognizance of the matter.

What has changed between 2013, when government officials and elected bodies at least felt the need to pretend to be answerable to the public, and now, when political parties running government feel so empowered, so entitled to their corrupt practices? The General Elections of 2014, that’s what has changed the political landscape of this country in three short years, changed it so irrevocably under the able stewardship of Narendra Modi, that one wonders if any semblance of democratic functioning or belief in answerability to the people can ever be recovered, or built, again. The breathtaking arrogance of the Sanghi parties in particular under this regime (whatever their internal differences), sweeps all ethics, all legality, all sense of accountability down that overflowing drain.

Undeterred though, by these antics, and presumably backed fully by their organization, other Red FM employees and RJs refused to be terrorized, and rallied with this biting response.

RJ ko bolne se mat rok! 

Meanwhile on another planet far far away from these gutsy young people, the older and doubtless wiser Board of Trustees of the long running, independent, unique academic weekly, Economic and Political Weekly, known as much for its news commentary as for its academic essays, bowed down to the threat of legal defamation from Gautam Adani, and took down from its website an article by EPW Editor Paranjay Guha Thakurta and co-authors, on

how the government allegedly bent the rules for the group with regard to Special Economic Zones, which allegedly led to the business group earning a refund on tax worth Rs. 500 crore.

The story is still available on The Wire but has been taken down from the EPW’s website on the basis of a unanimous decision of Trustees present.

What EPW has received is just a legal notice so far, and legal notices in themselves mean nothing at all. All investigative journalists worth their salt have received more than one threatening legal notice, and know very well that if they are confident about their stories, such notices are barely worth the paper they are written on.

This, for example, is how legal scholar Shamnad Basheer responded to a legal notice from Times of India threatening a law student with civil and criminal action for a blog post she wrote on the Times group’s long-drawn trademark tussle with the Financial Times of London:

We strongly object to the vile language and the highly aggressive tone used in the notice. We can respond in kind, but we choose to be a bit more civil with you.

You choose to issue this highly malevolent letter, hoping to intimidate us into a meek apology. Unfortunately, while the meek may inherit the earth, they are bound to be shown no favour by corporate powerhouses such as your client.

So, let’s cut to the chase and explore your alleged grievances articulated rather flatulently in over seven pages of a highly intemperate legal notice.

Interestingly, (just for the record) a similar notice was served at that time on Paranjoy Guha Thakurta for writing an article on the same issue, in Mint. Nothing came of those notices. Guha Thakurta is no stranger to legal notices, of course. His Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis (co-written with Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri), since 2014 has received several legal notices for criminal defamation from the Ambanis, but not one has fructifed into a case.

At the time that the publishing giant Penguin caved to Deenanath Batra’s legal notice and withdrew Wendy Doniger’s Hindus, Aarti Sethi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta explained what a legal notice is, and what it isn’t:

What a Legal Notice Is:

A Legal Notice is a grouse sent by registered post and has the same legal standing. Namely, none whatsoever. Any crank with half an hour, a typewriter and money for postage can send a legal notice to anyone about anything. You do not even have to get a lawyer to draft it. You just need a few minutes on the internet where pre-drafted forms are available for free. Or, just for fun, try drafting one yourself. Since it has no legal validity anyway, be creative!

Now that we know what a legal notice is, let us look at what a legal notice is not.

What a Legal Notice is Not:

An First Information Report (FIR)

A police complaint

A police and/or court proceeding

A Court Order

A legal injunction

To clarify again: a legal notice is simply a private communication between a private party and another private party.

It has nothing to do with the state.

As Prabir Purkayastha writes about the EPW situation:

The Adani Group had sent a lawyer’s notice to EPW claiming huge damages; this has  become routine for big corporate houses seeking to muzzle the media. Though none of these attempts have gone to court, let alone a judgement passed, the EPW Trustees appear to have used this letter to force Guha Thakurta to resign.

All that the Trustees can say in defence of their decision is that Guha Thakurta did not consult them before sending a reply to the legal notice.

What we need to do at this time is to stand firmly with all those who challenge authoritarian power – whether of the state or political parties, of lynch mobs or Sanghvad, of Brahminism or patriarchies, or of course, of corporate capital.

Whatever our internal differences, in this battle, the lines are too clearly drawn for us to mistake where we should be.

 

One thought on “And THIS is how you deal with threats of defamation charges! The strange case(s) of Red FM and EPW

  1. Surajit C Mukhopadhyay

    I am not merely surprised but saddened to see people of high standing in academia who taught us to stand up to authoritarian ideology giving in to bullying. I hope EPW despite their stand continues to be the forum for a democratic and liberal dialogue.

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