In India, a flourishing business for print media doesn’t translate to flourishing media criticism. As of March 2003, the Registrar of Newspapers for India reported there were 55,780 newspapers in the subcontinent, with 3,820 new newspapers registered in the previous year and 23 percent growth in overall circulation. And the Times of India, owned by the Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd., is the king of English-language newspapers with a circulation north of 2 million and readership of over 7.4 million people, according to Wikipedia.
But along with that success has come a dumbing down of the news as large mega-media corporations have gained control of newspapers — and have even invested in each other’s stock. So when one of the few noted media critics, Pradyuman Maheshwari, criticized the Times of India on his Mediaah Weblog recently, the Times looked to squash him with a seven-page legal threat for libel. The threat worked, and Maheshwari decided to close his site, as he has a day job running the daily Maharashtra Herald in Pune and didn’t have the resources to fight back.
Maheshwari, 39, started the blog in July 2003, as a no-holds-barred look at the Indian media business, complete with cheeky commentary and gossip and rumors. His original idea was to create a Poynter-like institute in India that would provide training for mid-career journalists. While the blog became popular in the media business, with a readership around 8,000, his own business aspirations for it flamed out. He took a job heading up the Herald in early 2003 and shut the blog down to concentrate on his job.
“The site didn’t work for me financially,” Maheshwari told me. “I thought I would be able to monetize it, but couldn’t, maybe because it was ahead of its time, or maybe I was being too idealistic. I wasn’t willing to accept money and advertising from media companies because I thought that would influence me.”
After a year of downtime, Maheshwari started the blog up again in January 2004 and received his first legal threat from the Times of India after a posting about the newspaper making a deal with Reuters related to TV. Even though another newspaper picked up the same story, Maheshwari was unwilling to fight and took down the posting and apologized. But even the apology upset the Times, and they told him to take it down so there wasn’t a backlash against the paper.
Then on March 7, he received a much longer legal notice, asking him to remove 19 blog posts related to the Times, or the company would take legal action. Maheshwari says much of what upset the Times was his criticism of its MediaNet initiative where businesses can actually buy photos and profile stories in the Times’ editorial section — what it calls “edvertorials.”
Almost all my calls and e-mails to the Times of India were ignored. I talked to its executive director, Ravi Dhariwal, who said he had “very little knowledge” of the legal letter against Mediaah, though he had heard of the Weblog and had read it.
“I don’t think it’s a piece of journalistic caliber,” Dhariwal said. “But I’m not here to express my point of view. You wanted to know some facts about the legal notice, and I’m not one to know.”
The legal notice came from a Delhi lawyer named K.K. Manan, who would only confirm to me that he had sent the legal papers. “I’m not going to talk to you people on the telephone,” was all he would say before hanging up on the transatlantic call. The legal notice makes very clear threats against Maheshwari.
“You are constantly engaged in criminal conspiracy against my Client, its employees, and business which has resulted in grave harm and loss of reputation to my client and its employees,” reads the legal notice in part, under Manan’s name. “It is clear that published material is injurious to the reputation of my client, which is done intentionally with ulterior motives or done in criminal conspiracy with someone as a proxy war. My Client reserves its right to take any criminal or civil legal action as it may be advised …”
Indian blogosphere springs to action
While Maheshwari has been reluctant to take on the Times in court, the Indian blogosphere hasn’t been quite so shy. One anonymous blogger quickly set up Mediaha, a blog that contains the 19 blog posts in question (which Maheshwari had taken down), as well as the seven-page legal notice from the Times.
One blogger, Sruthijith K K, a student who works at a public policy think tank in Delhi, launched a blog to follow the Mediaah/Times battle, while starting an online petition that quickly garnered 200-plus signatures. And another blogger, who goes by the online name Quetzal, ran a protest post on his blog, which is ironically hosted by the Times itself on its blog-hosting service O3.
“The success of [The Times’] case depends wholly on the hope that Maheshwari will not fight back against a gargantuan media conglomerate,” said Rohit Gupta, a freelance writer and engineer in Mumbai. “That’s where the Times of India reveals its ignorance of changing times and the nature of the blogosphere. Maheshwari does not need to fight this himself — this concerns the freedom of all bloggers from Indian origin, so we will fight the battle for him.”
Gupta has experience rallying the blogosphere during the tsunami disaster, by helping set up the South-east Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog. He has hopes that the Indian blogosphere can rattle the cages for change in the media business there.
“Maybe it’s premature, but if this goes where I think it’s going, it should go down in history as ‘The Great Indian Blog Mutiny,'” Gupta told me via e-mail. “The Times of India has simply shown how far they’ve come from being a respectable newspaper to being a common school bully. If bloggers can collaborate to provide humanitarian assistance for the greatest natural disaster the living world has seen, they can certainly tackle the Times of India, a man-made ethical disaster.”
While the Indian blogosphere has had global success helping cover the tsunami, it doesn’t have the domestic media clout of the bloggers in the U.S.
“In the U.S., bloggers are a powerful community, and you wouldn’t want to take them on,” Maheshwari said. “Here, the bloggers are a very small community, and people like the Times of India will take them on. It will take some time. We don’t have an association to back us up.”
Peter Griffin, a freelance writer in Mumbai, contributes to a prominent group media blog, Chiens Sans Frontieres (C*S*F), which has kept the Times’ feet to the fire over the Mediaah shutdown. Griffin told me that the Indian media has been slow to grasp the blogosphere and its potential to disrupt business as usual there.
“I think it’s pretty sad that an organization like the Times, one whose purpose is to provide information and opinion, should seek to suppress opinions it doesn’t like,” Griffin said via e-mail. “If they think that the blogosphere will let something like this go by without raising a stink, then they’re seriously underestimating the power of the collective. On the other hand, if they think a blog with a small subscriber base can seriously threaten an organization that is the size of the Times and its group, then it’s almost comical. They look pretty much like an elephant running away from a mouse.”
[Read my entire e-mail interview with Griffin on his blog here.]
The sad state of media criticism
While Indians are generally a gregarious people who read the news voraciously and have plenty of opinions, the idea of a media critic — especially of the print media — hasn’t caught on. Maheshwari figures there are only a handful of print media critics in the entire country, despite the tens of thousands of newspapers.
“While there are many seasoned journalists in India, there aren’t many people who have chosen to critique media,” he told me. “Being a media critic requires you to take on other media entities, which may find a person out of favor of a potential employer or friend. Publications possibly think that it’s not good to write a negative story about a rival … that it wouldn’t be considered in good taste.”
Maheshwari says he has worked in the media for 19 years, with more than 10 as a media critic. He points to Sevanti Ninan, who runs non-profit site The Hoot under the auspices of the Media Foundation, as one of the other top media critics. Ninan has had trouble keeping the site funded and recently ran another appeal for donations. She told me Indian media houses are not keen on criticism.
“The print media here has a very thin skin,” she said via e-mail. “Newspaper proprietors are wary of letting their staff write about other newspapers, in case the scrutiny is turned on them too. I write a regular newspaper column on all media including print, but a regular media column on the print media is pretty much non-existent. Every paper however carries critiques on television. … I started The Hoot four years ago primarily because newspapers and TV were so reluctant to carry media criticism.”
In a recent report on the Mediaah brouhaha on The Hoot, Ninan said that Maheshwari’s writing was “gossipy and irreverent” but that defamation could be alleged because he was targeting the Times “almost every single day.” The problem for Mediaah, according to Ninan, is that this is not a national issue such as the RatherGate phenomenon that dealt with CBS and questionable documents related to President Bush’s guard service.
“If a blog is raising an issue of national importance and providing evidence to go with it, the mainstream media will pick it up,” Ninan wrote. “But if it is a matter primarily concerning a media house with no larger implications, in India the media will not take on other media, no matter what. That has been Maheshwari’s misfortune.”
The writer/engineer Gupta also had the misfortune of doing media criticism of his own newspaper.
“Most of the major Indian media companies are bedfellows of each other,” Gupta said. “I was fired for voicing my opinion of Mid-Day, while being a columnist for Mid-Day. Who will want to follow my example? Blogs are our only outlet. This is why C*S*F was created, to protect freedom of expression.”
Many people believe the blogosphere nullified the old saying from A.J. Liebling, “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” However, Ninan sees a new cost for that freedom.
“The thing about free speech though, is that it does not come for free,” she wrote. “Its price, at the very least, is a lawyer’s fees. Pradyuman Maheshwari was offering no-holds-barred commentary on the media. If you are no-holds-barred, it stands to reason, does it not, that the guy you are targeting will also be no-holds-barred? You have to be prepared for that and cover your flanks.”
End game or a new beginning?
If Maheshwari had a fault in his writing, it’s that he was trying to please both his audience with saucy writing and the offended media houses with apologies and backpedaling. At one point, he started using asterisks in his writing to try to hide what he was talking about, in a weak attempt to prevent litigation. The legal papers from the Times even make reference to this style, saying “you are in the habit of doing malicious campaign against various media houses and when they object you immediately apologize to soften their anger.”
Indeed, Maheshwari wavered on whether to shut the site and went through each of his options in minute detail on his blog. Plus, he simultaneously told me that he wasn’t shutting the site out of concern for his day job as editor, but then said he didn’t want me to mention his employer in my article.
One thing is certain, though. Maheshwari will not be away from blogs for long. He plans to make a comeback, with the hope that he’ll have the backing of an organization. The blogger had applied to the Media Bloggers Association (MBA) just before his legal entanglement and will become a full member as of today. Robert Cox, co-founder of the MBA, told me he wasn’t familiar with Indian law but will provide what support he can to Mediaah.
“The MBA has agreed to assist Mediaah in so far as that is possible from New York to Bombay,” Cox said via e-mail. “The Times of India v. Mediaah matter reflects a pattern we have seen here in the United States where media companies appear to be first in line to use bully-boy tactics disguised as legal concerns to threaten and intimidate bloggers. [It mirrors] my own experience with New York Times attempting to shut down The National Debate blog over a parody last year and more recently a case where an MBA member, Michael Bates, has been threatened by his local paper, The Tulsa World, for the ‘crimes’ of linking to pages on their public site and quoting World articles in his blog posts.”
Following legal advice, Maheshwari likes his odds better as part of an organization or group instead of having to face the Times of India alone.
“What I plan to do is set up a Web site now in the name of an organization instead of just my name,” Maheshwari said. “The [legal] protection is slightly better for an organization than for an individual. But what I definitely did not want to do was delete those 19 posts or apologize for that. A lot of people told me in the past that I should not apologize, and I don’t see why I should apologize for something that I see as honest criticism and constructive criticism.”
As for restarting Mediaah, he said that would only happen if the Times withdrew its legal threats.
“I was extremely upset and distressed about what happened,” Maheshwari said. “Because this is just a labor of love, it is a lot more distressing. It’s good to see so many people are championing the cause, but I also don’t want to be associated with that because I don’t want to be seen as instigating against the Times of India. I just want to be seen as an honest critic of the media, having spent my whole working life in this business. I just try to get on with my life.”
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In Their Own Words
A sampling of thoughts on the Mediaah shutdown
On being fair to the Times:
“I appreciate that criticism should have its limits. But in my case, being a journalist and being an editor, there are people that will testify that I was fair in my criticism, and I was willing to put my name on it. I had the most to lose. I have a full day job. It’s not like I have a university funding me, so I have the most at stake. The objective was very noble, and the blog was getting very popular, so they were trying to silence me.” — Pradyuman Maheshwari, Mediaah blog proprietor, interview with OJR
The Times as Saddam:
“The Times of India has something of a Saddam Hussein hold on the Indian media here. I wouldn’t say they’re Saddam Hussein, but they are quite feared, and nobody wants to take them on. I always focused on issues and didn’t want Mediaah to become a scandal sheet, and because I work at a newspaper, I know that if a newspaper makes a big mistake, I know what it is. I’m just taking issues, larger policy issues, but it’s not nitpicking.” — Pradyuman Maheshwari, interview with OJR
On the democratization of media:
“I respect the Times of India for the fact that they have always adapted to new technologies, new ideas and attitudes. I hope they see and accept today’s reality that media has been democratized. Today everybody has a way to let others know their opinion and make it count at very low costs. … Also they would withdraw it if they realized that there is nothing they can do about someone who publishes on a free platform anonymously. Such actions will only motivate such people further.” — Sruthijith K K, student and blogger who set up petition in support of Mediaah
On Mediaah’s possible agendas:
“Now that the last prayers are being said for Mediaah.com, we have a word of advice for aspiring media commentators. Do not think that all is fair in media wars. Do not put out unsubstantiated stories. Do not be driven by agendas and prejudices. Do not target any one particular company/group/person. Rumours and masala are good to hear and pass around, but not good enough to put in the public domain. Apologizing for something which was genuinely wrong is correct and gentlemanly. Retracting that apology citing popular support is not. … Above all, stand by truth, not just your own story.” — Dances with Shadows, anonymous online journalist who criticized Maheshwari
On the double standard at the Times:
“While I think Pradyuman’s conclusions on some of [the blog posts] are a tad harsh, and I also have issues with his tone of voice, he certainly is well within his rights as a critic to come to those conclusions, and his tone of voice is his privilege to choose. Let me put it this way. If an actor or director thought the Times of India’s movie critic was being unduly harsh, would s/he sue the Times? If the Times’ literary critic savaged Salman Rushdie’s next book, would Mr. Rushdie have a case for slander against the Times? Would a court look at such lawsuits seriously?” — Peter Griffin, freelance writer and blogger in Mumbai
On the lack of media criticism in India:
“In Pakistan, which is a dictatorship, you can’t criticize the government but you can criticize the media. In India, which is a flourishing democratic economy, you can criticise the government – but not the media. As a result of prosperity, the guardians of our freedom of expression have become cheap entertainment portals and spin doctors.” — Rohit Gupta, freelance writer and engineer in Mumbai