Learning to Live with Bloggers

Indian bloggers and other online commentators are challenging the status quo in business and politics like never before. And they are redefining attitudes toward the media in a country whose celebrated protection of free speech has often been undermined by the libel laws of its common law legal system.
Most Indian businesses are growing accustomed to criticism from bloggers. Yet there are still some that, instead of mounting a PR offensive, send in their lawyers and try to stifle speech on the Internet. What they’re finding is that this approach is counterproductive-they may succeed in silencing an individual blogger, but a hundred more then take up the cause. Like Western companies before them, Indian companies must learn that trying to stifle speech instead of winning debates is a losing strategy.

In one recent case, NDTV, the Indian news broadcaster, threatened to sue Cheytanya Kunte, an Indian professional based in the Netherlands, after he criticized the way Indian networks covered the terror attacks in Mumbai last November. Mr. Kunte was harsh in criticizing the network’s anchor and managing editor, Barkha Dutt, calling her conduct unethical, and suggesting that her actions may have jeopardized some hostages’ lives.

Mr. Kunte was not alone in criticizing the broadcast media: There has been much soul-searching within the Indian media over whether they conducted themselves well in covering the crisis. NDTV threatened to sue Mr. Kunte, and obtained an unqualified apology from him, now displayed prominently on his blog.

But the strategy clearly backfired: Other bloggers began to reiterate Mr. Kunte’s original criticism, and resurrected the original post that upset NDTV. With multiple bloggers linking to each others’ posts, the story got a far wider play than it would have if NDTV had simply ignored the criticism. 

Some of the new criticism was sarcastic and vehement, with bloggers pointing out the irony of a media network stifling freedom of expression. Intrepid bloggers unearthed a wire agency story, published by NDTV on its own Web site, that cited Mr. Kunte’s post and other media criticism of Indian broadcasters, including NDTV. (The network immediately took down that story). Gulliver declared victory, but the Lilliputians were laughing.

Then, in late January, India’s Tata Group sent a notice to Ranjan Kamath, a Bangalore-based writer and filmmaker, after he sought signatures for an online petition calling upon Indian cell-phone users to maintain a day of silence on the death anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi, India’s founding father. This was a protest against three companies-Tata, Reliance, and Bharati-because there senior executives had publicly praised Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of Gujarat, at an investment forum earlier in January. The CEOs of Reliance and Bharati-Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal-had endorsed Mr. Modi to be India’s next prime minister. Ratan Tata had said investors who don’t invest in Gujarat state were being “stupid.”

Mr. Tata had reason to thank Mr. Modi-after protests in West Bengal shut his project to build the world’s cheapest car, Nano, Gujarat offered land and facilities, allowing Tata Motors to hit the ground running in Mr. Modi’s state. Mr. Modi is known for cutting through the red tape, but he is also known for being implicated in failing to prevent one of the worst Hindu-Muslim riots in post-independence India. Nearly 1,000 people died in 2002 under his watch. In 2005, the U.S. State Department denied him a visa to enter the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which prohibits foreign officials who are “responsible for or [have] directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” from obtaining U.S. visas.

While threatening to sue unless certain changes were made in the petition, Tata Group lawyers acknowledged Mr. Kamath’s right to free expression. They sought changes in the petition, so that it would not imply that Mr. Tata was endorsing Mr. Modi. Mr. Kamath amended the petition.

In 2003, an Indian journalist, Pradyuman Maheshwari, launched a blog called Mediaah!, a treasure-trove of gossip about the Indian media. It carried juicy stories about editors, how journalists operated, who got promoted or lost their job, and why certain stories appeared when others did not. The Times of India is India’s largest daily in English, and it markets itself aggressively, making the Times as much a consumer product as a newspaper. Some of its practices are controversial, such as selling space to advertisers, and running those stories on editorial pages, with only an arcane indicator to tell the reader if the story is a genuine news story or an advertisement. Many purists are upset about such tactics, and Mr. Maheshwari gave voice to such criticism. The Times group threatened a lawsuit unless Mr. Maheshwari removed 19 offending posts. He chose to suspend his blog.

Then in 2005, a youth magazine challenged claims made by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, a business school, about its placement record, the caliber of its faculty, and the facilities it offered its students. An IBM marketing executive, Gaurav Sabnis, linked that article to his blog, in which he called the school “a fraud.” The IIPM sent him a legal notice, saying it was going to launch criminal proceedings against him. Mr. Sabnis told his readers about the threat. The IIPM then approached Mr. Sabnis’s bosses at IBM, saying it would cancel its orders and that its students would burn IBM laptops in protest.

IBM did not cave in: Mr. Sabnis had broken no law, and he had not violated IBM’s own code of conduct. But to prevent embarrassment to his employer, Mr. Sabnis left the company. He later went to the U.S. for a doctoral program, and has since said the IIPM decided not to pursue the matter further.

A recent judgment by the Indian Supreme Court may encourage the heavy-handed tactics of those who want to silence bloggers. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court refused to dismiss a case brought by a political party, the Shiv Sena, against Ajith D., a 19-year-old computer science student. The Shiv Sena is a Hindu nationalist and Marathi chauvinist party, and Mr. Ajith started an Orkut community that was critical of the party. In that community, an anonymous commentator posted a death threat against the party’s leader, Bal Thackeray. Because he was merely hosting the Orkut community and wasn’t the one who threatened Mr. Thackeray, Mr. Ajith asked that the case be thrown out. The Supreme Court denied that request but has yet to rule on the merits of the case. Still, by allowing the Shiv Sena suit to go forward the Supreme Court has emboldened those who would silence criticism on the Internet.

Indian companies and political parties should adopt an enlightened approach, and instead of going after entire Internet communities or individual bloggers (except, of course, in cases where there is clearly just cause, such as a death threat), address the concerns raised in those complaints. Blogs and social-networking are redefining the way we think of the media, and what the limits of free speech may be. But trying to silence bloggers is a losing strategy in the long run.

Salil Tripathi, a former Singapore-based regional economics correspondent of the REVIEW, is a writer based in London.

Reproduced from the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) (Published 27 April 2009)

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/aboutenglishpen/campaigns/reformingthelibellaws/learningtolivewithbloggers/

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