Wednesday, 9 March 2005

Pause for reflection

This post is addressed mainly to the contributors to this blog, but comments from our readers are more than welcome.

You've all heard of people getting dooced. (For those who haven't, it means losing your job because of stuff you wrote on your website or personal blog, and it originates from the URL of the first blogger to be canned because of her blogging.)

Many of you have day jobs in the Mainstream Media (MSM). Most of India's MSM is clueless about the web, as I can tell from personal experience. (For example, after a half-hour explanation to a TV journo fom a channel I otherwise think is good, the bloke says to me, "So tell me, what's the difference between a website, a chatroom and a blog?") So it's very likely your employers have no idea what a blog is. My first set of questions are for you who take home cheques from the MSM.

1. Do your employers know that you blog?

2. Does your company have a specific policy against blogging that you know of?

3. Does your immediate boss know that you blog? Have you ever been told, officially or unofficially, by people higher in the pecking order, that it's okay (or not okay) to blog?

4. It's pretty likely that your contract says something about writing for other publications. Do you think that covers contributing to a blog or writing your own?

5. Some of you who have concealed your identities, but even among those, many have done so very thinly. It wouldn't take much effort for someone to find out who you are and which media organisation pays your salary. Do you worry that you could get found out? And perhaps lose your job?

6. A blog like this one, set up to critique MSM, frequently takes extreme positions about specific organisations. How do you feel about, for instance, someone rubbishing your company? Do you join in with insider info?

7. When the rest of the blog is dissing your employer's competition, do you join in. If you do, is that ethical?

Now, there's a reason why I'm asking all these highly personal questions. Something just happened that may force you to answer some of those questions, if not in the comments sections, than at least for yourself.

MSM goes legal on a blogger's butt.

A little background first. mediaah!* was arguably the first Indian media watchdog blog, and certainly the first one where the blogger put the name on his birth certificate up there for all to see. Pradyuman Maheshwari, the man behind mediaah!, had quit his job and was blogging fulltime, hoping to make it a paying proposition. It didn't work out, and after a six month run, he called it quits in Jan last year, and went back to an MSM job. This year, in Jan, he revived the blog, and since PM is a well-connected chap with lots of goodwill in the journo fraternity, mediaah! quickly got back its old readership.

But the pitch just got queered. Yesterday he told me he had been served a legal notice about content on mediaah!. On his blog he said:
Yesterday, we got another legal notice. It was from one of the better known media conglomerates from the country, asking us to delete some 19 posts on Mediaah! as also refrain from writing about it in future.

This isn't the first time we've had a problem with media companies taking us on. In the last couple of months this is the second legal notice and not to mention a media baron asking us to apologise for what was termed an insulting post.
As he says, this wasn't the first time he was served notice. When it happened before, he apologised publicly and removed the post. Though, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what the post in question did to harm the offended party's "reputation and goodwill." It was perfectly legit speculation, as far as i could tell, a bit gossipy for my taste, yes, but no more than the general tone of that publication's pages. I suspect that PM gave in because a legal fight just wasn't worth the headache.

This time, its even grimmer. PM says he was asked to remove nineteen "offensive" posts or else. He didn't name the complainant, but it isn't difficult to figure out who it was. (And no, I will not make any cracks about their honour and goodwill, since I can't afford a lawyer.)
When we spoke, late in the night, Pradyuman sounded weary, and it wasn't just the hour. He had pretty much decided to shut down the blog. It wasn't worth it, he told me. If every time someone with deep pockets didn't like something he wrote sued him, he wouldn't have the time to hold on to his day job, he'd be so busy in the courts. When I asked him about the content of those nineteen posts, he told me that they were all commentary, and certainly not, in his opinion, slanderous. Critical yes, very critical, yes, but a qualified opinion, and no falsehoods.

To me this sounds like harassment, pure and simple, and I sincerely hope PM changes his mind, but that's easy for me to say. I don't have a lawyer's letter sitting on my desk.

But now, back to you, and my questions.

This is a worrisome situation. Any one of us could be in the same boat as PM. Some of the things said on this blog have been far more extreme than anything he said during either of mediaah!'s runs. PM had a domain registered in his name, and under his address, which made it easy for the lawyers. Hopefully none of you have your street addresses out there in your profiles.

Anyway, it has all the makings of being a landmark incident for bloggers and blogging in India.

Which brings me to my last few questions. And they follow both from the first seven, and Pradyuman's predicament.

8. What, my fellow contributors, is your take on this matter?

9. Does this constitute a violation of our rights to freedom of expression? Are blogs not allowed to express opinions? Do we have to hide behind anonymous IDs to state them?

10. Would you back Pradyuman? Knowing that you could get the same treatment?

11. If this blog decided to mount up in defense of this cause, where do you stand? Would you like to disassociate yourself, be removed from the list of contributors?

* That link may not work right now - Pradyuman told me he was planning to take the site down while he figured out what to do.

P.S. This post reproduced in two parts, here and here, in a place where there's likely to be more vehement discussion than happens in these genteel surrounds. :)

p.p.s. Forgot to mention that this post grew from a long conversation with Annie, whose views you can read in the comments section (the Comment This button, not the Blogger comments).

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