In February, Aparajita Lath, a 22-year-old student at Kolkata’s National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), summarised for Spicyip.com, a blog specialising in Intellectual Property issues, developments in a two-decades-old legal battle over a trademark issue between the iconic British business newspaper Financial Times and Times Publishing House, the media conglomerate which publishes The Times of India and The Economic Times . She had never “imagined” that two months later she would be responding to a defamation notice.
TOI’s lawyers, in a seven-page notice to Ms. Lath, said her piece contained “false, baseless averments … and is a result of incorrect and grossly irresponsible reporting.” Objecting to ten points, the notice alleged that the article had caused “irreparable injury and loss of reputation to our client.” It demanded an immediate and “unconditional apology,” failing which, it said, she would face civil and criminal proceedings.
Ms. Lath had referenced her piece on the complex case, basing it on reports published in Mint , a business daily published by the Hindustan Times group, two of which were by independent journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. TOI’s lawyers have sent notice to Mr. Thakurta as well, demanding an apology and Rs. 100 crore in damages and accusing him of seeking to adversely impact court proceedings.
If TOI’s lawyers expected an apology from the law blogger or a meek legal response, they were in for a surprise. In a five-page letter, Spicyip.com founder and NUJS professor Shamnad Basheer objected to the “vile language” and “aggressive tone” in the notice, mocked at the “shock” expressed by Times over the article and said even if there was a “technical error” in the article, it did not amount to “defamation.”
The letter argued that the piece “restated factual aspects of legal proceedings,” and questioned why no notice was sent to either Mint or Harish Salve, senior counsel for FT , quoted in the article. “We can only guess you are averse to picking people your own size.” Mr Basheer denied the “puerile claims,” took exception to imputing bad faith to Ms Lath and threatened legal proceedings.
Speaking to The Hindu , Mr. Basheer said corporations “play this game” because legal suits had a “shadow effect” of silencing a large majority. “We have taken a conscious decision to use a non-traditional format so as to expose the sheer ludicrousness of the legal notice. Let them go to court. The issue will gain attention, and questions can be raised why defamation is criminalised.”
Mr. Thakurta, whose investigative stories partly form the basis for the blog post, said there was no question of his “apologising,” since the aim of the notice was to “harass and intimidate.” “In suggesting that my article was meant to influence the SC, the subtext is that the highest judiciary is amenable to influence because of one piece. This in itself is contempt of court.”
Contrary to practice, no legal notice was sent to the publishers and the editor of Mint , where the articles were published. But R. Sukumar, the paper’s editor, told The Hindu that he “stood by the story.”
“It is a great story. I commissioned the piece especially to Paranjoy since he has expertise on IP issues, and is a diligent writer on media. My lawyers are working with him.”
When contacted for a reaction, Ravi Dhariwal, CEO of the Times Group, said he was in London and was not available for comment.
Anxious when she first saw the legal notice, Ms. Lath has now pored over the entire case history minutely. “In a way, it is befitting that we are fighting for, in law school we are taught to respond, not sit quietly,” she said.
(Disclaimer: The Hindu and its sister publication Business Line compete with publications from both The Times of India and Hindustan Times groups.)
Student Aparajita Lath wrote a piece on a two-decades-old legal battle between Financial Times and Times Publishing House, based on reports published in Mint . Two of the reports were written by journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta