Throughout 2018, Anil Ambani relentlessly filed defamation cases against journalists, media organisations and politicians for publishing news reports or making comments about alleged corruption in the Rafale fighter jet deal or about the sale of assets by his Reliance Communications to his brother, Mukesh Ambani.
In early November, I started compiling details about these cases. I sifted through publicly available court records and contacted the journalists, media houses and politicians concerned.
These journalists worked for international and national media organisations. Ambani had sued them each for incredible amounts of money, rising up to Rs 10,000 crore. In most cases, the court fee is often a percentage of the total value of the suit. But it turned out that a suit for any amount can be filed for a comparatively low court fee of Rs 75,000 in Ahmedabad. Ambani had done just that.
Some of the journalists replied that they didn’t want to comment. A few who agreed to speak would not go on the record because the cases were sub judice. Interestingly, some of them claimed they were unaware of the cases against them. They expressed disbelief even after I sent them the details of their cases. I could not understand how a person would not know they had been sued for Rs 1,000 crore, or more. If that was not bizarre enough, how was it possible for a case to be regularly heard in a court of law without the defendant knowing? I kept prodding the journalists, but they showed little or no interest in chasing after the cases.
I sought to find out the cause for each case. What had they written or said to invite legal action? The journalists were reluctant to explain what exactly had led to the cases, and kept reiterating that they did not want anything in my story to point to them. One replied to my email saying he could not share any information because his “hands are tied”. Another journalist I spoke to said he was aware of the case against him but when I called again for details, he did not pick up or respond to text messages. It was only after three days that he took my call. He admitted he had been avoiding my calls and messages. “I was scared,” he said, without elaborating. What had made him change his mind? “I realised I am a journalist as are you,” he replied. “This is what we do. We share information with each other.”
Some of the journalists claimed they had received so many defamation notices from Ambani they had stopped counting. While the suits generally named individual journalists, some also dragged in their editors and publications. Oddly, one case even named an office assistant of a news organisation alongside its journalists and editors.
I continued following up with other journalists and media organisations but even after two weeks, I had made little progress. Most media organisations did not respond to my questions. In the last week of November, an official at a national newspaper replied to my email, asking for my phone number. “We were not responding to your emails, we thought you would get the hint,” she said over the phone. “But,” she added, “we appreciate your persistence.” She went on to generously share the case details with me.
In stark contrast to the mediapersons, the politicians sued by Ambani, most of them from leading Opposition parties, spoke unhesitatingly even though their cases were also sub judice. Some of them even provided legal documents related to their cases. Many of them railed against Ambani, accusing him of employing defamation suits to silence dissenting voices and curb the freedom of speech. I was rather amused when a lawyer representing a political party called to request that he be named in the story. “Please quote me because I want my name to come out and shine,” he said.
It was obvious that unlike the journalists, these politicians were not intimidated by Ambani’s defamation suits. This was mainly because they did not have to face the repercussions directly; the cases were being handled by legal cells of their parties. In addition, prolonged legal proceedings were unlikely to bleed them dry as they could the journalists and the smaller media organisations.
Ambani’s defamation blitz had succeeded in silencing the journalists after all.
In this series, Scroll.in reporters look back at their experiences while reporting a significant story in 2018.
Read more in this series here.