New Delhi, January 29, 2021 – The Indian media conglomerate Bennett, Coleman, and Company Limited (BCCL) is undermining its own integrity with a defamation suit against the news website and media watchdog Newslaundry, and should withdraw the suit immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On January 19, BCCL filed a civil defamation suit in the Bombay High Court, seeking 1 billion rupees (US$13.7 million) in damages from Newslaundry, a privately owned news website and media watchdog, Abhinandan Sekhri, the co-founder of Newslaundry, told CPJ in a phone interview.
The suit also demands an interim and permanent injunction barring Newslaundry from critically covering BCCL in the future, and demands that it take down an episode from one of its online shows, Sekhri said. The Bombay High Court gave Newslaundry two weeks to reply to the accusations, he said.
BCCL, commonly known as The Times Group, owns the English newspaper The Times of India, according to reports. It is the largest media group in India, controlling five dailies, 31 magazines, 32 radio stations, and nine TV stations under the Times Network, according to legal documents reviewed by CPJ and the Times Now website.
“Civil lawsuits are a legitimate avenue to seek redress in cases of alleged defamation, but they shouldn’t be used to stifle criticism, which clearly is the situation here,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, in New York. “It’s ridiculous that The Times Group, which has a huge platform from which to give its point of view, cannot withstand a little satire from Newslaundry. The right response is just to laugh it off.”
The suit alleges that Newslaundry defamed BCCL, its managing director Vineet Jain, and Navika Kumar and Rahul Shivshankar, editors with its flagship news channel Times Now, on two of its web shows, according to a copy of the suit, which CPJ reviewed. The suit names Newslaundry as a corporate entity and also names people involved in producing the company’s shows, including anchors, researchers, and editors, and the company’s directors as defendants.
The suit alleges that Manisha Pande, an anchor of the satirical web show “TV Newsance,” defamed BCCL, Jain, Kumar, and Shivshankar in an episode uploaded on October 10, 2020. In that episode, which CPJ reviewed, Pande criticized Times Now and The Times of India’s news standards in handling the arrest of actress Rhea Chakraborty.
The suit claimed that the episode was “beyond the realm of satire, parody or spoof,” “false, baseless and highly defamatory,” and lowered the reputation of Shivshankar and Kumar “in the estimation of colleagues, viewers, friends, employees and general public.” It also demands that Newslaundry take that episode offline.
The suit also claims that a November 27 web show, “Explained: How to rig TRP,” anchored by journalist Meghnad S., defamed Shivshankar and used Kumar’s image without permission.
That show, which CPJ reviewed, alleged that India’s television rating system was subject to manipulation, and featured images of leading news anchors including Kumar, and mocked Shivshankar’s journalism.
Sekhri told CPJ via phone that he stands by Pande and Meghnad’s reporting, and that the legal notices were a “crass attempt” to bully critics into silence.
“All too often small outfits back off because of the resources required to take this on in court,” he said. “We have no intention of backing down and will respond in court if asked.” Newslaundry has launched a legal fund to fight the case, and Sekhri told CPJ he hoped that the court would not impose a gag order on the outlet during litigation.
CPJ emailed BCCL lawyer Swaraj Jadhav for comment, but he did not respond.