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<nettime> Blogosphere Blues in India ...
Patrice Riemens on Sat, 19 Mar 2005 15:59:38 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Blogosphere Blues in India ...


After Joichi Ito, happilly shuttling between Kofi (Anan), Italian
squ(h)acktivists, and jazz festivals above the Polar Circle cheerfully
eulogized the American blogosphere as the nemesis of old media arrogance
at the Amsterdam 'creativecapital' conference, its equivalent in India
seems to be in for rough time...

Remixed from Asiasource and other fora...
Usual Apps 4 X-P


----- Forwarded message from "Frederick Noronha (FN)" <fred {AT} bytesforall.org> -----

Date: Thu, 17 Mar 2005 00:44:22 +0530 (IST)
To: AsiaSourceList <asiasource-l {AT} lists.tacticaltech.org>
Subject: [Asiasource-l] OFFTOPIC: Indian media blog shuts down after legal
 threats from Times of India


---------- Forwarded message ----------

http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/050315glaser/

Indian media blog shuts down after legal threats from Times of India
The Mediaah Weblog is shuttered after the Times of India threatens libel 
lawsuits, causing an uproar and petition in the Indian blogosphere. Can 
media criticism gain a foothold in the subcontinent?

By Mark Glaser
Posted: 2005-03-15
Photo
Pradyuman Maheshwari

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."

* * * * *

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


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