New Delhi, October 19, 201– The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on the Indian conglomerate Reliance Group, owned by businessman Anil Ambani, to end its use of excessive civil defamation cases filed against critical news outlets. Reliance Group yesterday filed a civil defamation case seeking Rs10,000 crore (US$1.35 billion) against the privately owned NDTV television channel over its reporting on the company, according to reports.
The defamation suit filed against NDTV, its founder, Prannoy Roy, and journalist Sreenivasan Jain, alleged that Jain asked questions during the September 29 broadcast of his weekly show Truth vs Hype that led to defamatory answers from the panelists.
The show was discussing a Rs 59,000 crore (US$8 billion) Rafale jet deal, in which Reliance was named as a partner with a French company to provide India with 36 fighter jets. The show asked questions about the transparency of the deal and whether Reliance had the skills needed for the partnership. At a press conference in August, two former ministers and a lawyer alleged that neither Reliance or its allied companies had experience manufacturing aviation or defense equipment, according to Scroll.
A court in Ahmedabad is due to hear the case on October 26, according to a statement released by NDTV.
Reliance Group filed a similar civil defamation suit on August 27 against the daily National Herald for Rs 5,000 crore (US$680 million) over its reporting on the same issue, Indian Express reported. The next hearing is scheduled for November.
“The ridiculously massive civil defamation claim Reliance Group has made against NDTV amounts to a severe attack on press freedom in India,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “India’s judiciary must ensure that powerful business groups cannot abuse the country’s legal system to silence critics.”
NDTV said in its statement that it repeatedly asked Reliance Group officials to respond to the allegations by participating in the show or by submitting a written response, but that its requests were ignored.
The NDTV statement said the defamation complaint filed by Reliance Group is “nothing more than a heavy-handed attempt by Anil Ambani’s group to suppress the facts and prevent the media from doing its job–asking questions about a defense deal and seeking answers that are very much in public interest.”
A spokesperson for the Reliance Group declined to respond to CPJ’s request for comment, sent via SMS.