Opinion

New threat to Press freedom–Defamation suits for big money

LALIT SETHI

Has Mr.Anil Ambani’s Reliance created a new record in the game of pushing defamation suits with a price tag of Rs.20,000 crores or is it as high as Rs.65,000 crores already? The hearing of the case against Sanjay Singh of Aam Adami Party started in Ahmedabad on October 19. The cases against NDTV and several other entities and individuals are set for hearing in Ahmedabad on October 26.

NDTV has rejected the charges of defamation and said that Anil Ambani’s companies had not responded to repeated requests by it to come on board and speak to the news channel. Anil Ambani’s net worth is $2.1 billion, according to Forbes. Is he seeking to encash a third of his wealth from the defamation suits? He owes the Chinese $2 billion and they have agreed to settle the debt outside court and are not pressing it in the legal arena, following assurances that he plans to raise a lot of money by selling his telecom towers business, which his elder brother had promised to buy but has yet to do so. His Reliance Telecom faces problems because Mukesh Ambani has hit all telecom majors and minors with Reliance Jio with supposedly tempting offers.

Does Anil Ambani have debts in companies like BSES, which supplies power to large parts of Delhi? But a number of companies may have issues of debt with bankers; and they are not overly bothered; they take warnings from the government and the banks in their stride; they happily jog along with court cases, which rarely get resolved.

 Nor do corporate billionaires lose sleep over liquidation warnings or asset issues or management changes by official quarters. They believe the governments change even if the previous ruling dispensation is back in power, but there may be a new Finance Minister, who may or may not be as accommodating as bygone governments.

 Could there be more suits on the way or would the younger Ambani hold his hand by warning media houses that adverse reporting on his collaboration with Dassault connected to the Rafale jets sale to India in a government-to-government deal between India and France is not being taken lightly. There are costs to pay, whether it is NDTV, which faces a Rs 10,000-crore defamation suit for a programme on the Rafale deal. The Telegraph newspaper describes it as the “largest defamation blitz in recent times in the country, on an issue of political significance prior to the general election in 2019”. The Telegraph newspaper headline calls it the “defamation sledge hammer”.

An international non-government organisation, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, has urged the judiciary to “ensure that powerful business groups cannot abuse the country’s legal system to silence”.

NDTV is the first on the list with the Reliance notice seeking damages of Rs 10,000 crores. National Herald, a daily associated with the Congress, and the Aam Aadmi Party’s MP, Sanjay Singh, have  also been taken to court for Rs 5,000 crores each. Two Congress spokespersons, Sanjay Nirupam and Priyanka Chaturvedi, say that Anil Ambani’s Reliance had brought defamation cases of Rs 5,000 crores each against nine Congress functionaries, including both of them, in August this year.

If this is correct, it means that those associated with the Congress, including National Herald, are facing defamation suits of Rs 50,000 crores. If the cases against NDTV and the AAP leader are added, the damages demanded rise to Rs 65,000 crores, much more than the value of the 36 jets’ Rafale deal. NDTV was sued this month, while the other cases were initiated earlier this year.

In comparison, BJP President Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah,s had  brought a defamation suit against The Wire, a portal, for a report on the turnover of his company, seeking damages of Rs 100 crores. The case is in the process of hearing. Arun Jaitley had sued Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, for his remarks on alleged corruption in the Delhi and District Cricket Association, but had apologized to the Finance Minister and rmer president of DDCA and the case was dropped. So was the defamation charge against Kejriwal dropped by Nitin Gadkari about the latter’s Purti Group when the Chief Minister apologized to the Highways Minister.

In a statement, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists has asked Reliance to “end its use of excessive civil defamation cases filed against critical news outlets.” Its Washington DC-based Asia programme director, Steven Butler, said: “The ridiculously massive civil defamation claims that Reliance Group has made against NDTV amounts to a severe attack on Press freedom in India. India’s judiciary must ensure that powerful business groups cannot abuse the country’s legal system to silence critics.”

In the civil suit filed at the Ahmedabad city civil court on October 11, three firms of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group — Reliance Infrastructure, Reliance Defence and Reliance Aerostructure — have claimed damages of Rs 10,000 crores from NDTV for alleged defamation in an episode of the show, Truth versus Hype, aired on September 29. The show was entitled The Ideal Partner in Rafale Deal.

The complaint alleges that NDTV, its executive co-chairman, Prannoy Roy, and the show’s anchor and managing editor, Sreenivasan Jain, “sought to convey false impressions” about Reliance Group and its chairman, Anil Ambani, “and have grossly misled the general public to believe that undue business favours are being extended to them by the government of the day.

The complaint lists 13 quotes from the programme, including a reference to former French President Francois Hollande’s statements, as “particularly incorrect, misleading, offending and defamatory”.

Last month, Hollande told the French news site, Mediapart: “It was the Indian government that proposed this service group (Reliance), and Dassault, who negotiated with Ambani…. We did not have a choice; we took the interlocutor who was given to us.”

The complaint alleges that Jain “conveniently glossed over the later clarifying statements made by the former French President Francois Hollande that offers the true meaning and import of his earlier statement, which was presented in a distorted manner”.

In a later interview to AFP, Hollande had said: “France did not choose Reliance in any way.” Asked if India had put pressure on Dassault to pick Reliance as partner, Hollande said: “Only Dassault can comment on this.”

In a statement, NDTV rejected the defamation charge and said: “Top executives of Reliance ignored repeated, multiple and written requests to appear on the show or comment on what is being widely discussed not just in India but in France as well — whether Anil Ambani’s Reliance was transparently chosen as the partner for Dassault in a deal that saw India buying 36 fighter jets….

“As the Rafale deal has become a larger news story in India, the Reliance group has been on a notice serving spree; to sue a news company for Rs.10,000 crores in a court in Gujarat on false and frivolous charges, ignoring facts that are widely reported everywhere and not just by NDTV, can only be interpreted as an unsophisticated warning to the media to stop doing its job.”

Anil Ambani’s Reliance has sued AAP leader Sanjay Singh for alleging at a Press conference in February that Reliance Defence was awarded the contract despite having no experience. Reliance claims it has 35 industrial licences in the defence sector.

Sanjay Singh appeared in an Ahmedabad court on October 19. He told reporters later: “Why was an aircraft costing Rs. 526 crores each bought for Rs 1,670 crores? Why did the government give two different prices in separate replies to Parliament? This (defamation suit) is a weird method…. These (cases) are attempts to suppress the truth.”

A day earlier, Sanjay Singh’s party chief,  Kejriwal, had tweeted: “Isn’t the Prime Minister the most critical witness in this case? Will he be cross-examined?” In a statement, NDTV said the charges of defamation are 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 defence deal and seeking answers that are very much in public interest.

The Rafale deal has been in the news over allegations of cronyism. It has been alleged that the government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was overlooked to favour Anil Ambani’s Reliance as one of Dassault’s offset partners.

NDTV said that its show reported the story, including Dassault’s denial that it had been under pressure to select Reliance. “The panelists, in a balanced discussion, examined whether issues like Reliance’s vast debt and record in defence manufacturing made it a suitable choice for Dassault in India.”

Meanwhile, NDTV is alleged to have received a show cause notice from the Enforcement Directorate for allegedly violating foreign investment rules adding up to Rs 4,000 crores. Rejecting the allegations of violating Foreign Exchange Management Act regulations, it said it is being targeted for its fair and independent journalism and that its persecution is intended to signal to other media houses that unless they fall in line, they will face similar consequences.

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