The concept of free speech in India can be a prickly affair. A billion souls and I’m sure there are billion opinions to go around. We achieved political freedom in 1947 but the true meaning of an open and democratic society still has not seeped in the Indian psyche; at times even bloggers don’t get it. Opening up the economy and increased interaction with the world partly helped in understanding this concept better so much so that even Raj Thackeray (rightly) justified his hate-filled messages under free speech. But the kicker is when you are faced with an opinion that you do not agree with. Instead of dishing it out, you are forced to contend with something that you wish is never said out loud. Given how the mob mentality in India works, the natural reaction in India is to ban such opinions. Umpteen books and movies have been denied this fundamental right simply because a vacuous minority found it unpalatable. As Nitin puts it succinctly, this culture of competitive intolerance is proving to be a bane of a progressing Indian society.
Why this tirade against violation of free speech principles? Because of this post. In the aftermath of the Mumbai Terror attacks, public opinion against the media was especially scathing as it clearly saw through the fourth estate’s blatant violation of journalism ethics and pandering to commercialism. The word ‘Exclusive‘ and questions like ‘aap ko kaisa laga raha hai?‘ were never so reviled. Opinions flooded the blogosphere and the Twitterverse so much so that the media finally acknowledged the usefulness of this new medium in spreading news and information.
But instead of introspecting into what did they do wrong, the media, in this case NDTV, did what they always do – use its influence and legal muscle to muffle the little guy. Chetan’s post titled ‘Shoddy Journalism’ (now removed but available on Google cache) was one of the well-written rants in the blogosphere that documented the Indian media’s failings and handling of this crisis.
One of the (three) primary complaints by NDTV against Chetan’s posts, as he cites in his withdrawal post, was the accusation that Barkha Dutt had revealed troop locations endangering their lives, was in fact cited and quoted directly from Wikipedia. So how can Chetan be sued for libel for stating an external source? Was Wikipedia sued? I bet not. Why not? [UPDATE: apparently, you can be held liable even if you cite an external source but malicious intent must be proven] Because it is simple to scare the little guy instead of taking on an influential non-profit that is responsible for creating an encyclopedia of human knowledge. The Wikipedia entry on Barkha Dutt that says the above still exists. Will NDTV sue me for pointing you to a source of contention? Hey, it is neither my opinion nor am I agreeing with it but merely stating that such a claim exists. Is this libel? I thought it was known in pop culture as gossip but what do I know after I’m just one of the We in ‘We the People‘. The first complaint was an opinion; not a stated fact and the second one, was a widespread consensus among the general populace.
The tactics of NDTV is simple – zero in on a small blogger and threaten him with a lawsuit for practicing the very same fundamental right that they earn their livelihood from. After all, the legal team must earn their retainer, right? And it works. Why wouldn’t it? An average blogger doesn’t want any pangas and just wants a digital record of his life, opinions, and memories. We don’t secretly plan on taking over your media business. I completely understand Chetan’s decision to back down but that doesn’t make what NDTV did right.
Mind you, they are not counting on the case going to court but employing tactics that the RIAA employed not too long ago to dissuade people from sharing music online. Not one case resulted in a conviction but plenty were settled outside the courtroom. Until of course, the RIAA ran out of money to sue (those retainers can add up!) and their strongarm tactics did not discourage others from doing what they thought was unlawful. So I ask NDTV to show if they have sued every single media outlet including their competitors and other bloggers who have reported on the allegations that Chetan is apologizing for? If not, why was Chetan singled out? Can he counter-sue for harassement? Questions questions…
This behavior is part of the larger malaise of Indian mainstream media who has inculcated the worst from their Western counterparts. Apart from the easily-fudged and legally-suspect sting operations, investigative journalism is virtually dead. I ask Barkha Dutt and her team at NDTV to pay close attention to their primary responsibility of news reporting toward the Indian people instead of going after poor bloggers who are merely quoting what they read and expressing their opinions. If they want in the opinion business, better stay away from reporter tag; you cannot have it both ways.
FromÂ a business perspective, you don’t go after your consumers and from a democratic perspective, you don’t turn against the people whose interests you claim to safeguard from the mai-baap government. When the reporter becomes the reported, it is usually time to take a closer look at your life and wonder what happened. I hope you understand and not sue me instead.