The legal notices by Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut on Friday threatening criminal action against the Entertainment Journalists’ Guild and the Press Club of India if they do not withdraw their decision to boycott her seem to be merely an intimidation tactic, with little substance.

The journalists called for the media to boycott the actor after she got into a spat with a Press Trust of India reporter at a promotional event for her upcoming film Judgementall Hai Kya in Mumbai on July 7.

Ranaut reacted to this threat in a video she posted on social media on July 11. In the clip, the star described journalists as “traitors” and “termites”, adding that a section of the media was “pseudo-secular”.

The Press Club of India in a statement condemned her “uncivilised, uncultured, filthy and abusive language against the media persons”. The Mumbai Press Club said that this was not the first time journalists have been insulted by Ranaut and her sister, Rangoli Chandel, who acts as her manager. “It has become part of their unprofessional conduct,” the organisation said.

Is there any legal basis to Ranaut’s notice?

The notice has three key elements. First, that the journalists have violated the regulations of the Press Council of India, which governs the conduct of working journalists. Second, that the decision of the journalists’ collectives to boycott the actor violates the Competition Act by hampering her access to markets. Third, that the call for a boycott is a criminal offence of intimidation, which carries a jail term.

Do these charges hold?

Lacking in substance

On July 11, in the video she released on Twitter, Ranaut said she would not be intimidated by the calls of a few journalists for the media to boycott her. In what seemed to be a sarcastic comment, she said: “I beg to you please ban me, because I don’t want that you guys can make money out of me. That’s the biggest favour you can do me.”

But the very next day, she chose to send a legal notice to the organisations, saying that a boycott was an unfair trade practice.

Even a casual reading of the notice shows that there is little substance in her decision to invoke some of the legal provisions cited. Section 4 of the Competition Act, for example, prohibits a group or enterprise in a “dominant position” from imposing discriminatory conditions on others and denying or limiting access to markets.

Even by liberal standards, there is no way either the Entertainment Journalists’ Guild or the Press Club of India could be considered to be occupying a “dominant position” in the media industry as defined by the Act:

“Dominant position” means a position of strength, enjoyed by an enterprise, in the relevant market, in India, which enables it to –

(i) operate independently of competitive forces prevailing in the relevant market; or

(ii) affect its competitors or consumers or the relevant market in its favour. 

Anyone even remotely familiar with Indian media knows that neither the Entertainment Journalists’ Guild nor the Press Club of India control journalism or business of media organisations. At the most, they have persuasive value. In fact, the notice acknowledges that the Entertainment Journalists’ Guild is not even a registered organisation and that the Press Club of India is merely a place for journalists to meet.

There is no material evidence to show that the boycott call has been implemented by many media organisations. Ranaut’s last major public event was the press conference on July 7 to promote the film and that was widely covered. The Entertainment Journalists’ Guild has made it clear that it will not jeopardise the movie in any manner. Ironically, despite a call for ban on covering Ranaut, even her distasteful comments against journalists and the notice she has sent to the organisations have been covered in great detail by the media.

Attempt at intimidation

The most absurd of the charges in the notice is the suggestion that the call for a conditional boycott of the actor amounts to criminal intimidation and extortion. The condition set by the journalists was that Ranaut should apologise for her outbursts, which were demeaning to journalists.

To accuse these organisations of criminal intimidation when they merely exercised their democratic right of protest is intriguing. How can an organisation that was formed for the welfare of entertainment journalists be expected to be silent if it believes that a reporter, and the professional community at large, is being targeted unfairly? If this is acceptable, then many professional associations, be it of doctors or even lawyers, would find it impossible to act when their constituents face unfair treatment.

Secondly, the guild is seeking is an apology, not a monetary payout. To say that seeking an apology is akin to extortion is pushing the boundaries of Section 383 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises the act.

In fact, it would seem that the statements at the press conference and later in the video by Ranaut, a person in position of power in the entertainment industry, were fueled by the intent to stifle criticism. Using terms like “termites” and “pseudo-secular” are clear attempts at intimidation.

Of course, there is the ethical question of whether any boycott is justifiable, especially when it comes from journalists, who have in the past reacted sharply to attempts by political parties to ban certain media houses claimed to be biased. Ideally, the media response should have been restricted to condemnation.

But to convert this into a serious criminal charge is a legal absurdity.