A man reads a newspaper in front of closed shops along the roadside in Delhi, India, on October 10, 2014. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood)
A man reads a newspaper in front of closed shops along the roadside in Delhi, India, on October 10, 2014. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood)

Indian businesses exert financial muscle to control press

In the late summer of 2014, Indian freelance journalist Keya Acharya found herself embroiled in her own version of the War of the Roses. That August, Acharya was forced to respond to a nine-page legal notice demanding that she pay a staggering 1 billion rupees ($16.3 million) to a company whose owner was upset about her article on India’s lucrative rose industry.

Acharya, an environmental journalist, was served the notice by Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, founder and managing director of Karuturi Global Ltd., a Bangalore-based, publicly held exporter of cereals, vegetables, and flowers. The notice accused her of defamation and demanded compensation for an article she published with the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency that explored Karuturi’s operations in East Africa and its alleged impact on the Indian rose industry. Acharya had shed light on the legal, financial, tax, labor, and land problems of the company in Kenya and Ethiopia.

After the notice was served, IPS posted a disclaimer in the spot where Acharya’s Web article had previously been: “We are suspending the contents of this article so as to ensure their veracity and that of the sources on which it draws and, therefore, request our subscribers not to republish or use it in any way.”

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

Ramesh Jaura, director general and editorial coordinator for Rome-based IPS, told CPJ that the news agency was also served a legal notice by Karuturi and added, “We suspended Keya’s piece on the advice of our lawyer, who might have to defend us if the defamation notice takes the form of a defamation case in an Italian court of law.” Acharya had been reporting on environmental issues on a freelance basis for about seven years with IPS, according to Jaura. (Acharya told CPJ in April 2015 that she worked for IPS since 1999.)

Acharya’s legal troubles–and her employer’s response–provide a window into a new challenge facing journalists in otherwise stable democracies where big businesses are exerting increasing influence on publishers, often using antiquated defamation laws, to silence criticism of their operations and dictate what is reported in the media. Beyond the familiar and emerging threats that journalists face around the world, including cyberattacks, kidnapping, and murder at the hands of terrorist groups, the efforts of such businesses to control the flow of information pose an insidious new menace in India and elsewhere.

Businesses are attempting to exert greater control of media coverage in three ways: using their financial power to silence journalists through lawsuits that chill critical reporting, influencing publishing decisions through advertising revenue, and, in some cases, taking ownership of news outlets to reduce or eliminate editorial independence at the source.

The public relations wings of big companies have always attempted to control media access and guide the resulting message. That is part of their job. In an era of understaffed newsrooms, they have become more crucial sources to reporters who can make quick use of reports organized internally by the companies. PR staffs also arrange interviews with executives and special visits and trips–known in common parlance as press junkets–and provide hospitality and gifts. Such relationships and perks, which are frowned upon in many countries, are less antithetical to the Indian media, where a culture of responsible journalism and ethics has yet to take root, and carry their own potential for abuse.

But, as Geeta Seshu, consulting editor for The Hoot, a South Asian media watchdog, observed, when “problem issues crop up, this machinery works towards either minimizing the damage or altering the narrative substantially.” One way to do that is for businesses to use their capital, power, and influence to silence journalists through the courts. In 2014 alone, at least five journalists have had to defend themselves and their critical reporting in courtrooms across India, often over dubious company claims that are potentially devastating financially for journalists and their employers.

Legal actions such as the notice Acharya received fall under what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation–more familiarly known as SLAPPs–which Acharya described as a tactic intended to censor, intimidate, or silence critical voices by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism. Such tactics are increasingly being used by large corporations to threaten the media into silence in India, Acharya told CPJ. “My particular case is not just to intimidate me but [also] to silence all further reports on [Karuturi] and his company’s operations in Africa,” she said.

Karuturi Global Ltd. did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

As in Acharya’s case, the damages sought by companies in such defamation suits are often exorbitant and disproportionate to the harm allegedly caused.

Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer at the Delhi High Court who specializes in free speech issues, argues that India’s defamation laws need to be revised to prevent them from being misused as a tool for intimidation. In India, both civil and criminal defamation lawsuits may be filed against a journalist once a legal notice has been issued, and civil and criminal proceedings may proceed simultaneously, according to “Freedom to Publish,” a legal guide published by the Manas Saikia Foundation.

Bhatia said that the detrimental impact of those laws on reporting is difficult to measure. “Proving the chilling effect is like trying to prove a negative, but the comparatively small amount of critique that the Indian public sphere has of big corporations is no doubt in part due to the threat of defamation,” he said. Data on the use of defamation laws is hard to come by, “especially because the primary use of defamation is as an intimidatory tactic–a notice claiming heavy damages is sent to the journalist, to scare him into a retraction or, at least, to cease writing in the future,” Bhatia said.

Seshu agreed: “It is definitely much worse than before, and when journalists and business houses get mere notices they rarely fight them, preferring to take down the news or then going slow on follow-ups or more news–even if they have documentary evidence. So they end up suppressing the news.”

There has been a sharp uptick in the number of defamation suits and legal notices threatening defamation, according to a year-end report published in December 2014 by The Hoot. The report documented 21 such instances in 2014, a significant jump from the seven cases documented by the media watchdog group in 2013 and the two cases recorded in 2012.

Among journalists who have recently been threatened with legal proceedings are three authors of the book Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis, released on April 15, 2014, which explores suspected irregularities in the pricing of natural gas in India. The month the book came out, Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL) and Anil Ambani of Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group served defamation notices on the authors through their respective corporations.

The Ambani brothers are among India’s wealthiest and most powerful business owners. Mukesh, who has been named India’s richest person by Forbes for eight years in a row, and his younger brother, Anil, are involved in an array of businesses, including energy and telecommunications.

The notices demanded that the authors–Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Subir Ghosh, and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri–offer an unconditional public apology, take down the website promoting the book, and immediately halt sales, publication, distribution, and circulation. The notice threatened “civil and/or criminal proceedings” if the demands were not met, The Times of India reported.

Though the book’s authors issued legal replies to the notices, there has been no movement on the case, according to Ghosh, an independent journalist. The legal threat failed to deter the authors, who published and distributed the book themselves.

“These [notices] are intended to psych out people,” Ghosh said. “We knew from the very beginning that neither of the Ambani brothers would take it lying down. But I know of others who have buckled under pressure of similar SLAPPs. Books have been pulled off [the shelves] or have had court orders nip them in the bud.”

Reacting to the notice, lead author Thakurta said that he and his co-authors had been “more than fair to RIL,” according to news reports. In a statement to journalists, he said that he viewed the legal notice as “an attempt to intimidate and harass” and described it as “an attempt to scuttle and suppress my fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, which guarantees Freedom of Speech and Expression.”

Reliance Industries and Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment.

In another case, the finance and real estate conglomerate Sahara India Pariwar, headed by Subrata Roy, one of India’s richest men, filed a 2 billion rupee ($33 million) defamation suit in December 2013 against Tamal Bandyopadhyay, then deputy managing editor of Mint, an independent business daily, and his publisher, Jaico Publishing House, for Sahara: The Untold Story, which details the story of the Sahara India Pariwar conglomerate and its recent legal battles with the Securities and Exchange Board of India, or SEBI.

Later that month, the Calcutta High Court ordered a stay on the book before its release, according to news reports. The parties reached an out-of-court settlement in April 2014 that resulted in the book’s carrying a disclaimer by the Sahara group stating that it includes defamatory content and that the company is not happy with it, according to Bandyopadhyay and news reports. The stay on publishing was lifted and the defamation case withdrawn, he told CPJ.

“The fight was tough. Being an individual, it was not easy to fight a business conglomerate like Sahara,” Bandyopadhyay said. “It took [a] toll on my health–I lost weight and got gray hair. There was a lot of stress, and I could fight because my family and [Mint] stood by me. Besides, the law firm worked pro bono, and, above all, the media supported me to the hilt.” But, he warned: “There is [no] denying the fact that such defamation suits will act as a deterrent to fair and honest reporting.”

Mint has come under legal pressure from the business groups before. Reliance Power Ltd., a part of the Reliance Group, sued HT Media Ltd., publisher of Mint, in the Bombay High Court over a May 12, 2010, front-page story in Mint that the company disputed. HT Media is still contesting that case. Sahara has filed a defamation case in a Patna court against Mint‘s editor and some reporters over the newspaper’s coverage of the company’s dispute with SEBI. Mint is contesting that case, which is ongoing.

Sahara did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

Raju Narisetti, founding editor of Mint, who left the paper in 2009 and now serves as senior vice president of strategy at News Corp., explained that Reliance also brought a several-billion-rupee lawsuit against him in 2008 for running a New York Times story at a time when there was a syndication deal in place between The Times and Mint. The lawsuit remains unresolved, Narisetti told CPJ.

The glacial pace of the Indian court system means that many other lawsuits are in limbo, which makes it difficult to determine their validity. In some cases, journalists or publications reach settlements with plaintiffs, which could indicate that the lawsuit was justified or that the defendant opted for the least costly solution.

As evidence of the slowness with which these cases tend to be resolved, in June 2014, Vir Sanghvi (then editor), Arun Roy Choudhary (then resident editor), Sudhi Ranjan Sen (author and journalist), and Rakesh Sharma (then printer and publisher) of the Hindustan Times were sentenced to one month each in prison for writing, printing, and publishing an article titled “Mumbai NCB Chief under CBI scanner,” which appeared in the December 4, 2001, print edition of the Hindustan Times, according to news reports. The case was brought against the four in 2004 by Ajay Ubale, then chief of the Narcotics Control Bureau in Mumbai, who alleged that the article incorrectly accused him of extortion. The sentence was stayed and the case was under appeal in late 2014, according to reports.

Another form of pressure exerted by big business interests on the Indian media is advertising revenue. Almost all private outlets in India get most of their revenue through advertising, because they charge consumers little or nothing for news content, Narisetti said. “Advertisers know the health of the media is dependent on them. They’re not hesitant to use their clout to their advantage,” he said.

A 2014 report by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) detailed the official use of financial leverage and regulatory powers to influence reporting and the very viability of media outlets in various countries. The report found that these tactics fall under “soft censorship.”

“Soft censorship is less noticed than direct attacks on press freedom like assaults on journalists but is even more widespread,” said Larry Kilman, secretary general of WAN-IFRA. Although businesses are also involved in such practices, the findings of the report were focused on the state.

“The promise of more advertising or the threat to withdraw advertising provides the other filter for news about businesses,” Seshu of The Hoot said.

Revenue is the lifeblood of any media house, and questionable economic practices–such as publishing paid “news” disguised as the real thing and accepting bribes or committing extortion for favorable coverage–have expanded beyond smaller or regional outlets, according to news analyses. That, in turn, has created a crisis of confidence in the media for many Indians. In addition, newsrooms have to contend with the possibility of being denied crucial access. “It’s not uncommon to get threatening calls saying, ‘We won’t give you access,'” Narisetti said.

There is little recourse for journalists if companies decide that they don’t want to speak to them because of past unfavorable coverage. In many countries journalists can rely upon public documents about corporations to supplement their reporting, but in India there are few alternative avenues of information, Narisetti noted.

“The media ownership, the lack of self-governance by the media, and current media business models that put you at the mercy of advertisers is a fatal combination that makes it a challenge to do quality independent journalism,” he said.

The third threat stems from non-media businesses’ assuming direct ownership of news outlets and controlling the news about their business interests, Seshu said. In India, there are no restrictions on ownership of media outlets; any citizen, nongovernmental organization, or business can own one, Seshu noted. Traditionally media houses have been owned by small independent publishers or by members of political parties or organizations, but, increasingly, big businesses are acquiring media holdings.

That phenomenon is not unique to India, but it poses a particular challenge there, given the other weapons that big business can use against the media. “There are some structural challenges in the pursuit of independent, unbiased business journalism, which, while not unique, are peculiar in the Indian context,” Narisetti said. “One of the biggest challenges comes from ownership structures of media in India. With one or two exceptions, media outlets are usually part of a major business conglomerate that has significant business interests.”

In May, Reliance Industries Ltd., which is India’s largest company, made headlines when it announced its acquisition of one of the country’s largest media companies, Network 18 Media and Investments Ltd., which owns television news channels CNBC-TV18 and CNN-IBN and news websites including Firstpost.com and Moneycontrol.com, and publishes magazines such as Forbes India, according to reports.

In late May 2014, immediately after the “hostile” takeover, as Mint referred to it, the entire top management at Network 18, including Raghav Bahl, its founder, and B. Sai Kumar, its chief executive officer, quit the company, according to reports.

A few week later, the editor-in-chief of the IBN Network, Rajdeep Sardesai, and his wife, Sagarika Ghose, host of “Face the Nation” on CNN-IBN and deputy editor of the English-language news channel, both resigned from their positions, according to news reports.

In a farewell letter to staff that was published in several news outlets, Sardesai wrote, “After nine wonderful years at IBN 18, it’s time to say goodbye. I must confess it’s not easy to leave a baby that one has helped create/build/grow and to leave such great colleagues. But I guess certain things in life are written in the stars. Editorial independence and integrity have been articles of faith in 26 years in journalism and maybe I am too old now to change! … I hope the new management will always put journalism first and I wish them well.”

Sardesai did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment. In a November interview with News Laundry, an independent website, he said that although big businesses across the world own media, citing General Electric’s stake in NBC in the U.S., it was necessary “to set clear and transparent rules and create some kind of a wall between the corporate and the newsroom,” prompting host Madhu Trehan to interject: “But that’s not happened at TV 18, clearly,” to which Sardesai offered no further comment.

In late July, Nikhil Wagle, editor of the Marathi-language news channel IBN-Lokmat, which is part of the same group, also resigned, complaining to Reuters of persistent editorial interference by the new owners. “Every day you can find some example of interference by Reliance–direct interference in news,” Wagle told Reuters. “They don’t send any mail. They give oral instructions. They give hints.”

Other staffers have complained about coverage during India’s national elections, particularly around the candidacy of Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), with whom Reliance Industries has had a contentious relationship, according to news reports. Kejriwal, who served a short stint as Delhi’s chief minister this past year, rode into power on anti-corruption rhetoric and made public allegations against RIL and Mukesh Ambani, according to numerous news reports. In July, Quartz India reported that after RIL’s takeover, coverage of Kejriwal and his party had significantly diminished and said that some staffers felt a clear message had been handed by higher-ups that the AAP should be ignored in its daily coverage.

The owner of the news organization also served a legal notice against Sardesai after he invited Kejriwal for an interview on his show, according to News Laundry. The channel saw Kejriwal’s interview as defamatory. It is noteworthy that a news organization handed its own journalist a legal notice in connection with sensitive coverage.

In an email to Reuters, Reliance said that it did not interfere in editorial decisions. “There has never been contact between Reliance and journalists of Network 18,” a spokesman wrote.

Reliance did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

“If India’s biggest corporate conglomerate is also India’s biggest media company, what does it do to diversity of opinion, plurality of opinion, what does it do to unfavorable news coverage?” Gas Wars co-author Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who also served as former member of the Press Council of India, told Forbes. “What happens when big business interests get into the media business? They influence what comes out into the public, what is heard and read…. [Suddenly] you have your large business groups, conglomerates determining what people read, hear, watch. It does raise concerns and questions about what happens to the voices of not just those who are contrary to RIL, but the marginalized.”

“On the face of it, it is a legal transaction,” Seshu said of such takeovers, “but it is still a completely cynical and cold-blooded operation and clearly affected the editorial independence of the media house in question.”

Asked whether the trend will have a significant effect on India’s independent media, Seshu said, “Yes, because it obviously impacts Network 18 and its freedom to report, so it definitely kills one potential voice.”

Venezuela and Indonesia are among the other countries where corporate interests are exerting control over reporting through the purchase of media outlets. In 2014, many critical columnists at the Caracas-based El Universal newspaper lost their jobs after the paper was sold to a mysterious business group, according to CPJ research. In Indonesia, ownership of news outlets remains concentrated among a handful of media moguls, mostly in Jakarta, which limits reporting on differing viewpoints in a country that is home to hundreds of languages and ethnicities and several major religions, CPJ found on a December 2014 joint mission to the country.

Corporate pressure is also coming to bear in the United States. In 2013, Sheldon Adelson, chair and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., sued Wall Street Journal reporter Kate O’Keeffe in a Hong Kong court for libel in connection with a report in which she characterized the billionaire casino magnate as “a scrappy, foul-mouthed billionaire from working-class Dorchester, Mass.,” news reports said. In keeping O’Keeffe on the beat, the Journal signaled that it would not allow the subject of an article to dictate coverage, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. The case was still pending at the end of 2014.

Yet the trend appears most pronounced in India, where the common refrain is that the country’s businesses grow at night when the government sleeps, suggesting that the nation advances in the private sphere despite the failings of the state. India’s defining feature since the country attained independence almost seven decades ago is that it is the world’s largest democracy. Critics say that any effort to stifle the climate for free and critical journalism presents a potential threat not only to India’s national legacy but also to its continued growth.

Sumit Galhotra was CPJ’s inaugural Paul Steiger fellow and is now an Asia program research associate. He has worked for CNN International, Amnesty International USA, and Human Rights Watch, reporting from India, Indonesia, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the United Kingdom.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay has been updated to include Acharya’s comment on her length of employment at IPS.