I fought a defamation battle against a fellow journalist all alone, because NDTV failed me

Why should I not question the hypocrisy of NDTV and Nakkeeran?
I fought a defamation battle against a fellow journalist all alone, because NDTV failed me
I fought a defamation battle against a fellow journalist all alone, because NDTV failed me
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This post has been written by Shabbir Ahmed and republished from his Facebook wall with permission. 

It was the year 2010, and 2g scam was dominating politics and the news cycle. I was a reporter with NDTV-Hindu, a Chennai-based English news channel operated by NDTV. On December 15, 2010, the CBI conducted raids across the country in connection with the 2g scam, and one of the raids was at the residence of the then Joint Editor of Nakkeeran magazine, Kamaraj.

Since it was a big story, almost all TV channels and newspapers across the country reported it. I reported based on what multiple sources in the CBI were confirming, and the same information was published and aired in several other media outlets.

One of my initial jobs in media was with Nakkeeran. I am not sure if it was my past with the magazine which irked him even more, but after a few days, Kamaraj went to court alleging that I had intentionally defamed him. He filed a criminal defamation case against me. His main charge against me was, and I am quoting from his petition here, “I worked as an e-reporter in Nakkeeran for 2 years from October 2006. While employed in Nakkeeran publications, I had interacted with Kamaraj. Due to functional shortcomings, I often faced unsatisfactory situations and was displeased with the complainant. I developed a personal grudge against him. Even after I left Nakkeeran, my animosity towards him continued. I had malicious intention to malign the reputation of the complainant."

The petition also laid out what was aired by NDTV-Hindu, and spoken by me on the channel.

On 15.12.2010 NDTV-Hindu published a flash news as follows :-

"Kamaraj is also a director of a company run by A Raja family.

Kamaraj's wife Jaya Sudha heads Chennai Branch of Radia's PR firm".

In the said channel the 3rd accused, Shabbir Ahmed gave a live report in 7.30 p.m news in NDTV-Hindu as follows:

"Documents seized which reveals that Kamaraj was a director of Mumbai based software firm called Mordern Hi-Tech

And a laptop was seized from his residence."

The defamation case was filed against the then Executive editor of NDTV-Hindu Sanjay Pinto, Senior Editor Radhika Iyer and me. The petition claimed that the editors are responsible for the “false, malafide and culpable news telecast” and I was “responsible” for reporting it.

The moment the news of Kamaraj filing a defamation reached my office, all hell broke loose. I was questioned. Mails after mails were sent and explanations sought. I dug out what other media houses reported – which was the same as what I had - and presented the facts. My editor, Sanjay, repeatedly told me that this case will not withstand the scrutiny of law and that we don't have to worry.

In a few months, NDTV-Hindu started facing its own problems. With the parent company bleeding, and channel itself showing little improvement in TRPs, it was becoming clear to employees like me that there was no future in the channel. So, to safeguard my career, I decided to move on to a better opportunity at Headlines Today, now known as India Today TV. NDTV-Hindu was later to sold to the Thanthi group, and the channel was shut down.

A few days after I left NDTV-Hindu, having served my notice period and doing my best for them till the very last day, I got a call from Sanjay. He said, "Shabbir, you have to fight your case on your own. This is the management's decision. You can ask your new organization to help you in fighting the case."

I asked him, knowing well that NDTV as a company will continue to fight for Sanjay and Radhika, why Headlines Today will agree to fight NDTV-Hindu's case, but there was no response. I realized that NDTV had decided to dump me, despite knowing that I would now have to fight my own battle, all alone.

I was shocked, but I was not perturbed. I was let down by my own organization, for which I had worked night and day. The feeling of being dumped by your own is not something that one can take lightly. I don't know what forced NDTV-Hindu's Managing Editor to take that call, or go with it, but it was injustice to me, by someone in my own fraternity.

I was even more incensed when I heard that Sanjay Pinto and Radhika Iyer had later approached the Madras High Court and got the charges against them quashed – they could have just added my name in their petition. They did not. I was also blocked by Sanjay Pinto on Facebook and Twitter, for reasons best known to him. I wrote an email to NDTV's Co-Chairperson Prannoy Roy asking him why they let me down, and I am still waiting for a reply.

While quashing the charges against them, the Madras High Court Judge KBK Vasuki said, ''The facts remain undisputed are that the raid was held in the house of the complainant and the documents were seized and the local correspondents of all media both print and electronic were present and the 3rd accused made live spot report and there was live telecast of the news of his report in NDTV channel......

The same would only go to show the biased and malafide intention of the complainant in filing this complaint for wrecking vengeance due to his personnel vendetta against A3 and the process of implicating A1 and A2 in the complaint would only amount to act of unnecessary harassment of A1 and A2.... Viewing from any angle, the criminal prosecution against the accused 1 and 2 cannot be allowed to continue and is hence liable to be quashed." (only operative portions used)

Adding me in this quash petition wouldn't have made any difference to the case, but I was left to fend myself. No explanation, or even formal communication, was offered to me for not fighting my case.

With the help of a few friends and well-wishers, I got in touch with Shanmugam, who is practicing as an advocate at the Egmore Court. I started attending the court proceedings. My attempts to approach the Madras High Court for a relief was unsuccessful.

Then, I was referred by a common friend to meet advocate N Ramesh, who is an expert in defamation cases at the Madras High Court. It's important to mention that the Vikatan group, which has the maximum number of defamation cases against them, still manages to do fearless journalism because of this man. Ramesh agreed to argue my case pro bono, and till today, I have no idea why he agreed to help me, when my own bosses had cut me out.

The legal battle was time-consuming, but we put up a fierce fight. Out of 2 main prosecution witnesses in the 2G-scam-related case was the present TN BJP Media Wing Secretary Subramania Prasad and one Sarathy Sambandan.

Subramania Prasad refused to appear for cross examination and Sarathy was cross-examined by my lawyer. He was the lone witness in the case and he gave a statement in the open court that Kamaraj and his wife Jaya Sudha (apart from others like Kanimozhi) were involved in the 2G spectrum scam. Thanks to him, the trial’s course had changed. After his testimony, the judge reserved his orders. On January 24, 2017, after 6 long years of battle, I was acquitted.

I was counting. It was 2555 days of fighting against a personal vendetta, by another journalist. Ironically, Nakkeeran itself has gone to the Supreme Court against criminal defamation laws in the country. What they were fighting at the apex court, they were using against me to intimidate me.

I used to admire Kamaraj as a cub reporter in Nakkeeran. I worked really hard at NDTV Hindu, which was my first English media job, having started in Tamil media. And that’s why, as much as I wanted to celebrate after my acquittal, my heart was heavy. It is not a great feeling when you are dragged to court by a fellow journalist, and your editor refuses to help you.

In India, the legal process is the punishment. I was never scared of the verdict, but the case took a toll on my life for 6 years.

It wasn’t easy. I was scheduled to appear in court on my first wedding anniversary, and that did not happen because Cyclone Vardah hit the coast and I was out reporting for that. Whenever there was a big story from Chennai, or any other important work, I would have a court hearing to attend. I spent my hard-earned money and precious time in the corridors of Egmore Court, waiting for my turn to appear before the magistrate, only to get an adjournment.

This did not dampen my spirits to fight against someone so powerful in the industry. The harassment only made me emerge stronger, because I was just discharging my duty as a journalist and I was not guilty of committing any crime. I was not scared of the outcome, but I felt I was already being punished by my own organization.

I would like to thank everyone who stood by me when I was going through this tough face. I was not alone and not even once I felt that I was fighting a lone battle. This made my resolve stronger.

On Tuesday, when the final orders were expected, I had informed Barathithamizhan, my friend and colleague, to arrange for 2 sureties in case the court delivered an adverse judgement. Chennai Press Club Manager Jacob and office boy Arasu came forward to bail me out. I was waiting for the judgement since 10.30 am, and along with me were Barathithamizhan, Jacob and Arasu, also waiting for the whole day. The wait was painful.

When I was called into the court, Arasu started praying for me. I was let down by my fellow journalists, but I earned the friendship of such wonderful people, who will never let me down. When the judge uttered, “I am acquitting you,” a sense of relief dawned upon me. I could now get back to my job and my family, full time.

I am still angry at what was done to me. An organization like NDTV, which waxes eloquence about journalism and wears anchors like Ravish Kumar as a badge of honour, dumped me in my hour of crisis. Prannoy Roy never responded to my email. Why should I not question his ethics?

An organization like Nakkeeran went to the apex court to fight criminal defamation, and yet harassed me here. Why should I not call them hypocritical, and their journalism political?

Nonetheless, I would like to thank them for dumping me. If not for them, I wouldn't have learnt how legal battles are fought and won. I would have never learned that I should never accept defeat, never quit and never leave a person behind.

Note: Views of the author are his own.

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