The most powerful man in Indian politics has the press in the palm of his hand.
Journalists tend to soak up everything Arvind Kejriwal says at his bombastic press conferences, which have become a spectacle where the former tax examiner regularly accuses members of the political elite of corruption and produces the evidence to prove it.
As the face of a as-yet-unnamed new anti-corruption political party, Kejriwal is on a mission to overthrow a political system that has for years allowed corruption to curdle in all levels of governance, mostly unchecked.
But reporting on Kejriwal's accusations has gotten the news media into trouble in the form of defamation and libel suits levied by the accused politicians, and has some media organizations questioning whether it's worth it to continue investigating the sometimes outrageous claims.
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"The stories that journalists cannot tell — or cannot tell the way they wish out of fear of libel suits or their promoters’ fear of politicians — are now told through coverage of Mr. Kejriwal’s accusations," wrote New York Times columnist Manu Joseph in October. "[Kejriwal's accusations] may have some holes in them, but retain enough substance to set off a brisk news cycle."
A Washington Post article published this week, part of that paper's ongoing coverage of India's anti-corruption push, says that India's journalists are being sued for huge sums of money by allegedly corrupt leaders simply for broadcasting Kejriwal's accusations, even those networks that have taken to prefacing reports with reminders that Kejriwal's accusations have not been independently confirmed.
News channel Aaj Tak, headed by investigative reporter Deepak Sharma, is being sued for $185,000 in damages for running with a Kejriwal-prompted story alleging Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid embezzled money from his wife's charity. Opposition leader Nitin Gadkari has threatened action against two TV channels "for accusing him of financial irregularities in his business." And although not a reporter, a man was arrested in late October for sending a tweet accusing a leading politician and son of the Finance Minister of having "amassed more wealth than Vadra," alluding to another known corrupt politician.
“All this could prove to be a decisive moment for both the news media and protest politics in India because it may redefine defamation, which, in turn, would further redefine the boundaries of free speech,” said Vibodh Parthasarathi, an associate professor who teaches media policy and law at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, to the Post.
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India has traditionally had a relatively free press, and until the push against corruption in the government, libel suits rarely made a dent. However, in 2011 a court ordered a TV network to pay $18 million in damages to a retired judge "for mistakenly showing his photograph during a story about a judge with a similar name who had been accused of fraud. The channel, which apologized and corrected the mistake on air, has appealed, reported the Washington Post.
This move allowed politicians (and their families) who felt defamed to take their cases to court.
"No doubt this flurry of threatened libel action is good for lawyers, but it also offers an opportunity to assess how and in what measure — if at all — our public discourse and criticism should be curtailed or snipped by the clippers of defamation law," wrote Anish Dayal, a lawyer in Delhi, for the Wall Street Journal last week.
Dayal called this year the "Fall of 2012" for politicians in India, who are one by one succumbing to Kejriwal's accusations.
"For us ringside spectators to this ping pong of allegations, it is amusing and disturbing at the same time. I do hope that in the end the winner is the Indian citizen," said Dayal.
This is part of a series by the RIGHTS blog on press freedom around the world.