India's headline-grabbing fight against corruption has galvanized the nation but is now beginning to prove costly for its media.
Almost every week brings a fresh accusation of corruption against some high-level figure. But reporting the charges has suddenly become fraught with risk for India's young private broadcasting industry.
Politicians have begun to hit back with threats of legal action and lawsuits against the media and the activists making the accusations, invoking a rarely used defamation law. That has forced newsrooms to consider whether they should stop airing news conferences in which activists deliver tirades against politicians and business leaders, or accept the risk in defense of the public's right to be informed.
With more than 300 channels, India's vibrant but shrill television news has by and large been a cheerleader for the anti-corruption movement. Stations have aired many accusations lobbed by activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, who has called lawmakers thieves, murderers and rapists. Those targeted routinely deny the allegations, and Kejriwal's critics call his efforts self-serving.
In the past, few Indians bothered to initiate defamation suits, because trials can take decades in the country's overburdened courts. A handful of plaintiffs have been awarded paltry sums after waiting years for their cases to be resolved. But in a rare case last year, a lower court in the city of Pune ordered a private news television channel to pay a retired judge damages amounting to about $18 million for mistakenly showing his photograph during a story about a judge with a similar name who had been accused of fraud. The channel, which apologized and corrected the mistake on air, has appealed.
But allegations of corruption are harder for the news media to ignore now, because of a huge groundswell of public anger.
"In the current turbulent phase, stories about corruption no longer begin and end in TV studios and newspapers but they are picked by activists and quickly snowball into street agitations," said Deepak Sharma, head of investigative stories at the Hindi-language news channel Aaj Tak, which is being sued for a story that accused Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid of stealing money meant for the disabled through a charity run by his wife.
"The story was malicious and untrue, not just unreasonable," said Louise Khurshid, who filed the defamation suit in a New Delhi court seeking $185,000 in damages. "We are not against free press, but press shouldn't be irresponsible. Why am I suing? They will be responsible if they have to pay money. That's what we are doing — making them pay."
She said she will also sue in Mumbai as well as London, because the story was also aired in Britain.
Sharma said that the story was in the public interest and involved taxpayers' money and that he had given Louise Khurshid one month to respond before airing it.
India's 24-hour news networks have become more powerful in recent years, turning into a nightmare for many. They have exposed high-level corruption in preparations for the the 2010 Commonwealth Games and irregularities in how telecommunications licenses were awarded. They relentlessly show images of politicians abusing power, making crude remarks or otherwise behaving badly.
But the defamation suits have energized many of the networks' critics. Nitin Gadkari, the chief of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, has threatened to take two TV channels to court for accusing him of financial irregularities in his business.
Some Hindi news channels now add a disclaimer saying that Kejriwal's allegations have not been independently verified, but legal experts say that might not be enough to protect the media companies.
"The channels get the ratings, Kejriwal gets his politics, somebody's reputation gets sullied, and India pays the price because nobody wants to invest here," said former solicitor general Harish Salve. "We will see more and more channels getting sued in the coming weeks."
That could hurt Kejriwal's nascent movement, which relies heavily on broadcast media to appeal to middle-class Indians.
"All this could prove to be a decisive moment for both the news media and protest politics in India because it may redefine defamation, which, in turn, would further redefine the boundaries of free speech," said Vibodh Parthasarathi, an associate professor who teaches media policy and law at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.
Last month, Kejriwal was served legal notice that he would be sued for calling Delhi's chief minister, Sheila Dixit, an agent of private utility companies.
"When non-political players, including activists and journalists, make these shoot-and-scoot allegations, the traditional politician does not have the time to go from one TV studio to another or sit on the street and respond," said Pawan Khera, political secretary to Dixit. "Taking the legal course is the best option."
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