SLAPPed by Jay Shah, why not “The Wire” is letting the event play itself out in the court?
(Pic Courtesy ajantanews.com)
Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. By analogy, caesar’s son must as well be above suspicion and so should be Jay Shah, the son of Amit Shah, who is now the chief of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party.
The 100-Cr criminal defamation suit filed by Jay Amit Shah against “The Wire” and its correspondent is a move to rise above that suspicion.
The recent controversy around the business activities of Jay Shah and the alleged “golden touch” that he brought to his business since 2014 when his father became the BJP chief, comes as a real shot in the arm of a huge lobby consisting of players, long baying for the blood of Narendra Modi. The lobby sniffing madly for anything incriminating against the Modi camp, suddenly got a luscious trail of wrongdoings dished on a platter when the online news portal, “The Wire” published a report titled, “The golden touch of Jay Amit Shah”.
The report, apparently done with serious research and data-mining, concluded to impute that Jay Shah, son of Amit Shah, manipulated his circumstances to acquire unexplained wealth since elevation of his father as president of the BJP in 2014. The opening lines of the article conveyed its bottomline:
“The turnover of a company owned by Jay Amitbhai Shah, son of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Amit Shah, increased 16,000 times over in the year following the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister and the elevation of his father to the post of party president”. The intention to implicate Amit Shah, whose rise coincided with the rise of his son’s fortunes and to ensnare even Modi in the mess was the real slant that raised the heckles of the Modi camp.
To impute the complicity of Modi in the scandal was the real take-away of the opening lines and the imputation found instant takers on both sides of the fence. The “Twimmandos” (a portmanteau of Twitter Commandos) took to their twitter guns to fire instant salvoes on the swelling Huns on the other side.
However, the real bemusing sight was to find Piyush Goyal, the Railway Minister in Modi’s cabinet, holding a press conference to defend a private individual, Jay Shah. Maybe, the Government was aware that the real targets were Amit Shah and Modi and sooner the lie is debunked the better it’s for Gujrat elections, where the Shah-Modi magic would wane should the image of the duo stands blemished. Thus, the Additional Solicitor General was given a hasty permission to defend Jay Shah in the courts. Both these decisions were compared with the reaction of Congress ministers’ during the Vadra land deal expose. The similarity was chilling. Was the Modi government cutting off its nose to spite the face? Even Arnab struggled to elicit an answer from Piyush Goyal.
Despite, similarity in reactions between the two governments, the difference between the Vadra case and the Jay Shah case can’t be overlooked. While the transactions and dealings involving Robert Vadra and DLF was a hush hush affair with scant facts available in the public domain, the Jay Shah case, by its own admission of “The Wire” and reiterated by the BJP brass, all records are in the public domain with details appearing in the filings with the Registrar of the Companies (ROC). It’s all a matter of interpretation and analysis that is the bone of contention between Shah and The Wire.
The Congress Party, which was long ambling in the wilderness of irrelevance, suddenly got an unexpected opening to tear into Modi. Kapil Sibal rose from his hibernation to address the media and jumped down to the Modi’s throat – “He (the Prime Minister) spoke against crony capitalism. But we know he will remain silent now because the case involves Amit Shah’s son. We also know who the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate will investigate and not investigate.” Sibal has still not got over the bitterness of humiliation that he’d to suffer following his “Zero Loss” doctrine and now he found a chance to return some of it to its biggest benefactors, the BJP and Modi.
The fires were being returned with equal potency as the Modi camp dug in the past of some prominent Wire players.
However, “The Wire” which has a reputation to twist its stories to give a negative slant to everything around Narendra Modi and his government, wasn’t taken kindly by many. It was subjected to a cruel reality check.
What was missing in the din was a merit-based discussion on the facts and analysis presented by “The Wire” and to fill in the role, an article came in “Opindia.com”, an online newsportal which claims to “curate contents from various sources” and points out factual errors and analysis in various journalistic works.
The Opindia article shredded Rohini Singh’s “golden touch” argument into pieces and exposed many loopholes in the report written by her. Picking facts from the same source (return filed with the Registrar of Companies), the Opindia article suggested that “The Wire” picked certain facts suitable to its story while left many other important ones with the motive to give her story a sensational slant so that her damnation that Shah, Jr. had made a windfall gain of 16000 times, may appear credible. The Opindia revealed:
“One of the crux of the (Wire’s) article is that the turnover jumped 16000 times, hence Mr Jay Amit Shah has the “golden touch”. But would a man with the “golden touch” incur a loss of Rs 1,48,00,551 (Rs 1.48 crores)? Yes, as per the same Registrar of Companies (RoC) filings, which Singh quoted so much, this company with Rs 80.50 cr revenues, had Rs 81.99 cr as expenses, and incurred a loss of Rs 1.48 crores as soon as Modi came into power. Of course, revealing such information would puncture the entire narrative that Jay Amit Shah’s business was successful just as Modi came into power. Hence, this small piece was hidden by (Rohini) Singh (sic).”
What initially appeared as a work of serious research was instantly reduced to a piece of malafide story done by cherry picking of facts to suit to a particular narrative. Rajdeep Sardesai, in one of the best balancing act of his journalistic acrobatics, took to twitter to graciously share this article from Opindia.
Now that Jay Shah has filed a Rs. 100 crore defamatory suit over, what it claims to be a “false, derogatory and defamatory imputation”, there is a furor over the move with many putting it in the category of Strategic Lawsuit Against Public participation (SLAPP), where high net worth individuals with deep pockets file defamation suits claiming huge amount of money as damage with the intension to drag the defendant in long litigations and to discourage them or others from pursuing the matter. “The Wire” and many others claim it’s a clear case of SLAPP suit. Well, as happened in the cases of ‘Rajasthan Patrika’ and the news portal ‘Moneylife’ (of Sucheta Dalal), the courts also look into the merit of the allegation whether a lawsuit falls in the category of SLAPP and if yes, it may dismiss the same.
However, the reaction of the mainstream media to The Wire’s report was measured with many choosing to tread the path with caution. Rana Ayyub writing in the Huffingtonpost lamented, “There was an eerie silence on news channels, some focused on karva chauth, others on Muslim appeasement, the rest on pressing issues such as the Hrithik Roshan-Kangana Ranaut spat.” Taking the lawsuit as an intimidation, she was fulminating – “In an ideal world this intimidation should have led to an outrage in the media. Silence by intimidation being the last on the charter of a journalistic organization.”
Newslaundary, too, lamented that most media houses remained confined to covering Piyush Goyal’s press conference and that’s all.
The reason was simple. The issue in question is a highly complex legal matter where the writer had cobbled together a conclusion, joining tricky dots and alluding innuendoes that bordered upon a libellous imputation. The rest of them were wiser. They didn’t want to get caught in the act of barking up the wrong tree.
In a matter of legal complications, pick your way wisely or else you may end up being a party. Hence, no one was willing to become a party to a suit, which may drag on for years draining the defendants financially and emotionally without solutions. More so when the counsel of Jay Shah had unequivocally issued a caveat, even before publication of The Wire’s report, to Rohini Singh or to any other media organization, to not broadcast any potentially defamatory comments about his client.
Still, The Wire chose to stick to its guns and published the report. So, one is led to believe it must have solid evidences to back its claim. So, The Wire shouldn’t make a hue and cry over the 100-Cr defamation suit.
After the report was published, the caveat became even wider – “If anyone else republishes/re-broadcasts the imputations made in the said article, whether directly or indirectly, such person or entity will also be guilty of the very same criminal and/or civil liability.”
There’s a report that NDTV too had published a similar story on its site suggesting some 4000% increase in loan advances to Jay Shah, though the same was pulled in a haste, obviously because of the legal complexities surrounding such insinuations, especially when you lack crucial evidences.
Many in the media tried to take the caveat as an open threat.
However, those who take it as a threat show a complete lack of legal literacy about the Indian jurisprudence surrounding the concept of defamation, which is more popular in west than in India.
The option of defamation is available to all individuals whose reputation, in their opinion, has been violated by certain other individuals, organizations or publications. Higher the reputation, bigger the need to be exonerated. If there is a likelihood of defamation, the individual, through his counsel, reserves the right to warn any one to desist from the perceived act of transgressing his reputation. Such caveats are normal. However, a section of media, took it as a threat.
In India, Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 says that defamation can happen “by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, to make or publish any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation, of such person”.
Defamation suit can be filed under either criminal or civil law. Jay Shah, in this case has filed a criminal defamation against the writer and publishers of “The Wire”, meaning they’re confident of proving the ‘actual malice’ that will ensure criminal punishment under the law. A civil suit doesn’t provide for punishment; it simply asks the defendant to pay the plaintiff the claimed money should the latter wins the suit.
After the defamation suit, The Wire and its supporters are looking rattled.
It tried hard to enlarge the ambit of Jay Shah’s defamation suit by giving it a broader perspective through the suggestion that it’s a general onslaught on media’s freedom and on it’s ability to express itself in a free and unbridled manner.
The Wire made a passionate appeal to broaden the implication of the defamation filed against it by quoting the Sullivan case (New York Times Co. Vs Sullivan, 1960), where the New York Times won a case of defamation in Supreme Court filed by L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery public safety commissioner, who had claimed that a report published by the newspaper tarnished the image of police department by publishing incorrect and erroneous facts of atrocities during the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern US. The jury had unanimously ruled in favour of the NYT, saying that media must be vested with sufficient freedom and liberty in the matter of reporting the conducts of public officials and minor errors in reporting events shouldn’t come in the way of conveying the larger message of truth. The judgment has become the bedrock of media freedom in many parts of the world.
As per my opinion, the Sullivan case, widely quoted in Indian jurisprudence also, is, however, not relevant in the Jay Shah defamation case, as the said judgment was made in connection with reporting the conducts of public officials and hence the same journalistic liberty and freedom is not available in the matter of reporting issues against private individuals, like Jay Shah. Secondly, the Sullivan case had set a ‘malice standard’, in which the plaintiff was burdened with the responsibility to prove that a media report carries ample malice with definite intention to tarnish his or her image. As Jay shah has filed a criminal defamation, he’ll have to prove that malice standard in order to win the suit.
M.K. Venu, one of the founding editors of The Wire, in an internal video interview with Arfa Khanum Sherwani released by the “The Wire” in episode 4 of “Hum bhi Bharat”, was frothing at the mouth at the criminal defamation suit, saying he’s no money but has a battery of lawyers to fight the case. So, what’s the problem, Mr Venu? Let the law take its course.
Well, in the same way as a publishing house carries the right to publish an investigative story, the persons affected by such a story carry the right to challenge it under the law of the land. Then, why to fulminate at the constitutional right of an individual? Rather, “The Wire” Should be happy that it got an opportunity on platter to nail the presumed lie of Jay Shah, by bringing all the facts, circumstances and documents available with it before the court in support of its report. It has got golden time to connect the missing dots and to complete the jigsaw of conspiracy for all to see.
Let “The Wire” debunk the claim of Jay Shah or his attorneys using its battery of lawyers, including crusaders like Prashant Bhushan, who has already lapped up the matter with gusto. Why “The Wire” is jittery? Does it feel it needed more materials to build a sustainable case? Maybe, yes.
Let the matter play itself out in the court.