The NATCO Defamation Petition

As reported in Legally India and Bar and Bench, the pharmaceutical company NATCO has brought a defamation suit against Shamnad Basheer claiming that the blog he runs – Spicy IP – ran a blog post that defamed the company.  Shamnad is a co-blogger on Law and Other Things and a personal friend.  I am out of the country currently and have not had a chance to discuss the case with Shamnad, but I felt so disturbed after reading the articles that I thought some comment was necessary. 

The linked articles describe the allegations.  I do not know any of the details of the case besides those described there and do not wish to speak about the merits of the case (I will leave that to Shamnad and others who seem to be already making a powerful defense and will likely make NATCO regret bringing the case). 

I can say though that one of the major obstacles I see to the development of a stronger legal academy in India is free speech.  I have had friends tell me that they had not written articles for the media that concerned certain companies – despite feeling strongly that they should – because they feared a defamation suit like the one Shamnad now faces.  I remember one rather banal op-ed I wrote a couple years ago was first accepted and then ultimately not published by two prominent Indian newspapers.  In both instances an editor at the paper told me that after accepting the piece they became concerned that the judiciary might hold them in contempt for publishing it.  I ultimately published the op-ed in the US. 

Self-censorship has become a norm both for authors and the media in India to the detriment of being able to have rich and honest legal debates.  In any debate, positions might become distorted or misrepresented by either side.  This is the cost of a free society.  And the cost is well worth it.  It is in the free exchange of ideas that a community becomes stronger and that the truth – whatever it is – comes out.  If the media and bloggers cannot comment on ongoing cases out of fear of a lawsuit (particularly if the case involves a large company who can hire expensive lawyers) then everyone loses.

The legal academy in India is in actuality quite small, despite the country’s large size.  As any reader of this blog will know there are few places one can turn for good in-depth analysis about current cases in the courts.  Spicy IP has been one of the leading forums for such analysis.  Today it is under attack.  That should concern everyone who cares about the legal academy and free speech in India.

Written by
Nick Robinson
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  • The censorship of academic opinion is turning out to be an extremely problematic issue in India today. Apart from the petition filed by Natco against Shamnad Basheer, the noted economist Ajay Shah is currently defending charges of defamation that have been brought against him by a stock exchange. It is extremely important for the freedom of academics to comment on issues of public importance to not be curbed unnecessarily and one hopes that these defamation cases will not add fetters to the right of fair criticism.

  • Assuming what you say is true (and there is no reason to not believe it), isn't it true that the only way forward is to fight such cases and win them so that they act as a precedent and prevent future companies from bringing forward such silly actions. It is true, of course, that here and elsewhere, there is a heavy cost borne by those who end up fighting these pioneering cases.

    A long time back, I read David Niven's entertaining book "The Moon's a Balloon." One of the things I remember from that book is the "studio" system of Hollywood and how it restricted actors' freedom of movement to the extent that the studio effectively controlled an actor's career. The first actress who challenged this was Olivia de Havilland. She won her case, but paid a heavy price. Of course, her actions benefited others; as her sister Joan Fontaine puts it "Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal."