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Posts Tagged ‘defamation’

An interesting debate about anonymous speech on the internet, CDA 230, and the related issues of privacy, information flow and libelous harm. My position on the issue is expressed in my two comments on the thread.

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(See updates below)

(This post, for legal reasons that will be obvious, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 License.)

Gaurav Sabnis writes about the unfortunate case of blogger Chetan Kunte, whose views about Barkha Dutt’s “unethical reporting” apparently caused NDTV to browbeat him into deleting the post and replacing it with an apology.

It does not take a PhD in reading between the lines to guess what happened. NDTV probably sent Kunte a legal notice, asking him to pull the post down, apologize, never write about them again, and pay an absurdly massive amount of money. Remember this legal notice from a few years back? Seems like NDTV might have used the same basic wording.

I don’t know if that is true. I do strongly suspect, however, that someone acted like a bully. Gaurav notes that Chetan’s post is available through Google Cache. Since I do not know how long it will stay there, I am going to cross-post the entire thing here. I am not violating Kunte’s copyright because his license terms (the same as this particular post) allow me to republish his writing with attribution. [Update: see below] I also believe that his entire post was basically a collection of opinions and not literal statements of fact; hence Kunte did not defame Barkha Dutt/NDTV by writing this post and I am not doing so by posting it here.

I urge all bloggers who feel similarly to do the same.

Appalling journalism. Absolute blasphemy! As I watch the news from home, I am dumbfounded to see Barkha Dutt of NDTV break every rule of ethical journalism in reporting the Mumbai mayhem. Take a couple of instances for example:

In one instance she asks a husband about his wife being stuck, or held as a hostage. The poor guy adds in the end about where she was last hiding. Aired! My dear friends with AK-47s, our national news is helping you. Go get those still in. And be sure to thank NDTV for not censoring this bit of information.

In another instance, a General sort of suggests that there were no hostages in Oberoi Trident. (Clever.) Then, our herione of revelations calls the head of Oberoi, and the idiot confirms a possibility of 100 or more people still in the building. Hello! Guys with guns, you’ve got more goats to slay. But before you do, you’ve got to love NDTV and more precisely Ms. Dutt. She’s your official intelligence from Ground zero.

You do not need to be a journalist to understand the basic premise of ethics, which starts with protecting victims first; and that is done by avoiding key information from being aired publicly—such as but not limited to revealing the number of possible people still in, the hideouts of hostages and people stuck in buildings.

Imagine you’re one of those sorry souls holed-up in one of those bathrooms, or kitchens. A journalist pulls your kin outside and asks about your last contact on national television, and other prying details. In a bout of emotion, if they happen to reveal more details, you are sure going to hell. Remember these are hotels, where in all likelihood, every room has a television. All a terrorist needs to do is listen to Ms. Barkha Dutt’s latest achievement of extracting information from your relative, based on your last phone-call or SMS. And you’re shafted—courtesy NDTV.1

If the terrorists don’t manage to shove you in to your private hell, the journalists on national television will certainly help you get there. One of the criticisms about Barkha Dutt on Wikipedia reads thus:

During the Kargil conflict, Indian Army sources repeatedly complained to her channel that she was giving away locations in her broadcasts, thus causing Indian casualties.

Looks like the idiot journalist has not learnt anything since then. I join a number of bloggers pleading her to shut the f⋅⋅⋅ up.

Update: In fact, I am willing to believe that Hemant Karkare died because these channels showed him prepare (wear helmet, wear bullet-proof vest.) in excruciating detail live on television. And they in turn targeted him where he was unprotected. The brave officer succumbed to bullets in the neck.

Update 2 [28.Nov.2300hrs]: Better sense appears to have prevailed in the latter half of today—either willfully, or by Government coercion2, and Live broadcasts are now being limited to non-action zones. Telecast of action troops and strategy is now not being aired live. Thank goodness for that.

Update 3 [30.Nov.1900hrs]: DNA India reports about a UK couple ask media to report carefully:

The terrorists were watching CNN and they came down from where they were in a lift after hearing about us on TV.
— Lynne Shaw in an interview.

Oh, they have a lame excuse pronouncing that the television connections in the hotel has been cut, and therefore it is okay to broadcast. Like hell! [←]

I’m thinking coercion, since Government has just denied renewing CNN’s rights to air video today; must’ve have surely worked as a rude warning to the Indian domestic channels. [←]

I should probably add that I do not agree with Kunte’s opinions. However that is hardly relevant in this context.

[Update: It appears I was mistaken in reading the license; the Creative Commons license governs the Google Cache blog, not Kunte’s blog. (I thought they were the same blog). So it is possible that my republishing Kunte’s post above  violates his copyright. On the other hand, since the original post is no longer available on the author’s blog, my posting it here has news reporting value; so it may well come under ‘fair use’. Anyway, for now, this post stays.]

[Update 2: In a Facebook group, Barkha Dutt (or someone impersonating her) confirms that NDTV did send Kunte a legal notice.

you may want to know that the author of this email- a certain Mr. Kunte who lives in Holland.. has been sent a legal notice by NDTV for the rubbish and lies peddled in this email.

Best Regards

Barkha Dutt.

This whole case has been a PR nightmare for NDTV. If they have any sense whatsoever, they will issue a dignified statement about free speech, retract the threat to Kunte and shut up on this topic henceforth.]

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This case may have set a worrying precedent.

I do not advocate, as some libertarians do, that we do away with all defamation laws. It does make some economic and moral sense to penalize speech that is demonstrably and objectively false, and results in specific harm. However, I am in all circumstances opposed to defamation being a criminal offence — a barbarous relic that has no place in a free society. And truth should always be a defense.

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Check out Ilya Somin’s post at Volokh about the United Nations campaign to create a new international law norm banning “defamation of religion.” Money quote:

Given the broad scope of religious ethics, almost any political or ideological statement might be seen as offensive to the values of one religious group or another. To some theologically conservative Muslims and Christians, advocacy of gay equality is just as offensive to their religious sensibilities as a negative portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed. And claims that Muslim nations mistreat homosexuals might be viewed as no less “defamatory” of traditional Islam than the Mohammed cartoons. […] The right place to block this particular slippery slope is at the very top of the hill.

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This is a disturbing and stark reminder of how much India lags behind the US in free speech.

The cyber cell of the Pune police on Saturday arrested one more suspect for allegedly uploading obscene and derogatory text about Congress chief Sonia Gandhi on a social networking site.

The suspect has been identified as Nithin Chakravarti Suresh Sajja (22) of Begumpeth, Hyderabad. Earlier the crime branch had arrested Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid (22), an IT professional of Gurgaon on May 17.

The Information Technology Act under which the suspect was arrested has been previously used against other people for writing derogatory things about Bal Thackeray, Ambedkar and Shivaji.

Why would this not happen in the United States?

The only law that could conceivably apply in such a scenario in the US is defamation. In order to qualify as defamation under American law, a statement must be both false and injurious to the reputation of an individual. Furthermore, when public figures are involved, the burden is on the accuser to prove malicious intent.

Perhaps the most important qualifier in the above paragraph is the word ‘false’. By definition, opinions cannot be true or false, because they are, well, opinions. Thus, an opinion, however offensive or disgusting, is not legally actionable. A statement that on literal reading is factual but is really just an opinion (e.g “She is a bitch”) is also safe from prosecution.

It seems highly likely that in this particular case, the poor guy currently behind bars was just expressing his opinions about Sonia Gandhi in colorful language. It is also likely that whatever statement he posted did not do any real harm to Ms. Gandhi’s reputation. Thus, if this were the US, the idea that he could be arrested for such an offence would be almost laughable. There is no shortage of offensive humor here against political leaders (check out the Hillary nutcracker) or celebrities in general (in a South Park episode, Paris Hilton is depicted as stuffing a pineapple into her vagina) and no one is ever arrested for such things. 

A second point, I think, is also worth mentioning. Defamation in the US and many other countries is a civil offence, meaning you can be fined for it but not jailed (a few American states still have criminal defamation statutes, but they are almost never enforced). Thus, even if the defamation law did apply to the Sonia Gandhi episode above (that is, if Nithin had made explicit false statements about her), it would not result in jail time.

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Not even as a token of protest…

Ingrid Newkirk and the PETA activists had gone to Gandhi Park, blindfolded the statue of Mahatma Gandhi and hung a board that said ‘reject cruel sport jallikattu.’

Following a complaint lodged by a Congress functionary, police registered cases against Ingrid and others for creating religious ill-feeling, defaming the national leader, trespassing and also under Tamil Nadu Open Places Prevention of Disfigurement Act.

Inspector Cederick Manuel was transferred to the City Police Armed Reserve for failing to stop the protest, police said.

Newkirk told Reuters she did not mean any disrespect to Gandhi but blindfolded his statue to symbolically shield him from the cruelty of the sport.

Going into a public park is trespassing? The token of protest defames Gandhi? Protesting against a sport on purely ethical (and secular) grounds creates religious ill-feeling? There is actually a law called Tamil Nadu Open Places Prevention of Disfigurement Act?!

Also I gladly note how easy it is for an ordinary citizen to get a police inspector transferred.

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