15 February 2013

In a move that has sparked renewed furore among netizens, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) of the Government of India (GOI) has ordered a blocking of 78 URLs, 73 of which are web pages related to the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM). Medianama today reported on the blocking order which was signed by Mr. Subodh Saxena, an official in the DoT, GOI.

The last time such a wholesale blocking of URLs was ordered by the government was during the Assam violence row in 2012. But this time around, the blocking order seems to be the result of a court order as was suspected by lawyer Apar Gupta and confirmed in a report by Livemint.

Five of the URLs pertain to misleading websites (claiming to be websites of Bombay High Court among others) but what is extremely interesting is the nature of the other 73 URLs sought to be blocked by the order.

Public Information

The very first URL listed pertains to a notice by the University Grants Commission (UGC) which is the competent authority regulating institutions of higher education in India. The public notice dated July, 2012 carries the subject line : “Unrecognized status of IIPM”. The notice (by UGC) seems to have been prompted by a Delhi High Court directive asking IIPM and UGC to make it clear whether IIPM is a recognised university or not. That a court or the DoT should pass an order limiting access to a public notice by a competent authority is a bit surprising- the information given out in the notice seems to be for the benefit of the student community.

Clampdown on humour

IIPM has had its share of criticism, some of it meant to be light-hearted. Two spoof news websites - fakingnews.com and unrealtimes.com - also figure in the list and have had some of their URLs blocked for funny, obviously fake articles on IIPM.

In a telephonic interview Mr. Rahul Roushan, who edits Faking News, described this instance of censorship as being “both tragic as well as hilarious”. He said that it is the first time that any of his URLs has been blocked (in his knowledge at least). Due to lack of any other people on his team, Mr. Roushan may not challenge the blocking order, unless other affected parties plan to do the same.

Outlook and Careers360 magazines

Even though the order copy specifically instructs Internet Service Providers (ISPs) not to block entire domains but only specific URLs, the editor of Outlook (a reputed weekly magazine), Mr. Sundeep Dougal in a telephonic conversation confirmed that access to the entire subdomain blogs.outlookindia.com was blocked which contains, as he wrote in an email, “all sorts of blogposts over the years, not just stories about the esteemed IIPM”. The ISPs seem to have gone out of their way to block the entire subdomain when they were asked to block only a few URLs. He said that “although the blocking order itself can be challenged in a court of law, what is idiotic is that the entire subdomain has been blocked due to incompetence of the ISPs. The same server also happened to have our CMSs for updating the rest of the site (outlookindia.com) and also many other resources which too, as a result, became inaccessible and we could not update the site till we devised alternate measures, causing totally avoidable delays. It’s Friday night already and we got to know about it from the Medianama report. Even if we challenge or seek to stay the order, it won’t be before the weekend in any case”. When asked if Mr. Dougal was aware of any pending case against Outlook by IIPM in Gwalior (the Livemint reported that a Gwalior court issued the order) he said that he had no information whatsoever of such a case being pursued in any court.

However, this is not the first time that Outlook got into trouble because of its articles about IIPM. In 2009, Careers360 magazine, published by Mr. Maheshwar Peri, who is also the publisher of Outlook magazine was sued for defamation by IIPM over a 2008 article in Outlook magazine written by Mr. Peri which was first in a series of articles through which Careers360 Magazine sought to “expose bogus universities that had cropped up in various parts of the country and which were defrauding students” (they were still investigating the working of IIPM and a few other articles were in the offing, for example, “IIPM - Best only in claims?” which was published later).

The magazine reported, among other things, that IIPM claimed that its students were eligible for MBA degrees from IMI, Belgium but NVAO, the accreditation organisation of Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium), did not recognise IMI. Also it reported that following a local agitation against the opening of a new campus in Dehradun, the state government of Uttarakhand had asked the Uttarakhand Technical University to conduct an enquiry on the activities of IIPM, with which IIPM did not co-operate. The investigations held that IIPM could not in any circumstances award valid MBA/BBA degrees or conduct such courses in the state of Uttarakhand.

The current blocking order seeks to remove both of these articles from the Careers360 website.

A magisterial court in March, 2009 issued an ex-parte order restraining Outlook magazine from publishing any defamatory articles against IIPM. However, Outlook and Mr. Peri got the ex-parte order modified by the Delhi High Court to read, among other things, that the magazine could continue to publish articles against IIPM as long as IIPM’s response/rebuttal (if received within 2 days) is published with the same prominence in subsequent issues of the magazine without modification. This modification (of the original ex-parte order) is at the heart of civilized debate. Given that IIPM would run full page ads making these claims in widely read newspapers it was only natural that critics examined the authenticity of the said claims. Rather than seeking immunity from any further criticism- as was provided by the initial ex-parte order- not responding to criticism or rebutting it by disseminating information seems more acceptable as a response. In fact, the initial court order barring Outlook from writing about IIPM is a bit surprising in that it prohibits a journalist in advance from writing anything about an institution.

In 2009, based on articles against IIPM in Careers360, IIPM filed four cases against Mr. Peri and Careers360 magazine: in Kamrup (Assam), Gurgaon, Delhi and Uttarakhand - all for libel. In a telephonic conversation in November, 2012, Mr. Maheshwar Peri said that because of the various difficulties of dealing with lawsuits in places as remote and unfamiliar as Kamrup and Silchar, they try to avoid having their articles appear in Assam. The judgment in the last one (Uttarakhand case) was particularly important because the judge noted that IIPM should have been asked to prove the libelous accusations wrong the very first time the case was heard. This is important because, if the charges leveled are indeed true, then defamation cases should not be admissible, especially so if the propagation of truth is in public interest.

The observations made by the court in this case are particularly interesting. Some of these are quoted below:

The entire edifice of our justice system rests on the principle of truth! […] A truth spoken for public good can never be called defamatory. When the author of the disputed article stated in the article itself, in no ambiguous terms, that what he has stated is true and has been verified from Buckingham University and the Berkeley University that they have no arrangements with IIPM, then the first question the learned Magistrate should have asked the complainant was – “Do you have the authority to grant this degree from Buckingham University? If yes, show the proof? […] But no such evidence was shown, even to this Court! […] Yet IIPM in its bold advertisements published in Education Times […] states as follows: […] MBA & BBA Degree FROM Buckingham Business School, The University of Buckingham, UK.

The court also referred to a Supreme Court judgment which clearly lays down that the judicial process cannot be misused for harassing someone. If the trial court finds that the chances of conviction are bleak, it should not allow criminal proceedings to continue, even at the preliminary stage.

Another observation made by the court points to a flaw in the defamation law itself:

The emphasis on ‘truth’ by this Court is not a reference on the exception to Section 499, but generally as a matter of caution, must be examined by the Court before issuing summons.

Truth spoken for public good as a defence for alleged defamation is very important for journalistic freedom and a transparent public discourse.

The Caravan Magazine

Although the piece titled “Sweet Smell of Success” was removed from Caravan Magazine’s website following an ex-parte order obtained by IIPM, the blocking order still mentions the URL of the same.

Another URL pertains to the tag “Arindam Chaudhuri” which would pull in all content related to “Arindam Chaudhuri” anywhere on the Caravan website. Similarly, as pointed out by Medianama yesterday, even a Wall Street Journal URL linking to the “Arindam Chaudhuri” tag is on the list.

Another URL on the list refers to information on the Caravan website regarding the litigation initiated by IIPM against The Caravan Magazine.

Backdrop (2011):

IIPM filed a Rs 500 million defamation suit against The Caravan magazine, its proprietors Delhi Press, author Siddhartha Deb, the publishing house Penguin Books India, and Google India over a Feb, 2011 article that Siddhartha Deb had published in The Caravan Magazine titled: “Sweet Smell of Success: How Arindam Chaudhuri Made a Fortune Off the Aspirations – and Insecurities – of India’s Middle Classes”.  IIPM managed to get a restraining order from the court ordering Caravan to remove the allegedly libelous article. The lawsuit accuses The Caravan and others of “grave harassment and injury,” while charging Google of “publishing, distributing, giving coverage, circulating, blogging the defamatory, libelous and slanderous articles.” It was filed in the Court of Civil Judge in Silchar, Assam. IIPM is the second plaintiff named in the suit, the first being one Mr. Kishorendu Gupta, who operates ‘Gupta Electrical Engineers’ in Silchar.

It is noteworthy that the Caravan Magazine and IIPM both operate out of New Delhi, yet the lawsuit was filed in the remote and relatively inaccessible state of Assam. The Supreme Court later stayed proceedings in the Silchar court.

The logic behind dragging Penguin publishing house into the lawsuit was that the article in question was excerpted from Deb’s (then) upcoming book which was to be published by Penguin. Deb argued that the article is well-researched and is based upon several interviews with Arindam Chaudhuri himself.

Most surprising was the reasoning used to drag Google into this: since Google displayed the article in question in its search results, it was accused of “publishing, distributing, giving coverage, circulating, blogging the defamatory, libelous and slanderous articles”. Google already has a mechanism in place whereby aggrieved parties can get damaging content removed from search results. All that Google does is index WebPages and, in case a reasonably serious representation is made, the page is no longer indexed – the same applies to pages that praise the institution as well. How Google was involved in “blogging” the particular article is difficult to understand.

The Caravan magazine filed a transfer petition in the Supreme Court on the grounds that except for one party to the suit [Google] all other parties are based in or around Delhi. The magazine, in a release stated that the matter came up for hearing on 8 August 2011 and that the Supreme Court of India had issued notice to all other parties on its transfer petition and has stayed the proceedings at the civil court in Silchar.

Private Blogs

One of the URLs sought to be blocked is merely a timeline of events of IIPM’s legal action against jammag.com. In 2005, Ms. Rashmi Bansal, who edits a career magazine named JAM (Just Another Magazine), published a story (online and in print) which held that IIPM had not been accredited by any Indian agency such as AICTE, UGC or under other state acts. Ms. Bansal received a legal notice from IIPM asking her to remove the “defamatory” content. When she refused to comply, IIPM managed to get an ex-parte injunction from the court forcing her to remove the article from her website. In addition to this, IIPM also filed a case against her in a Silchar court (regardless of the fact that IIPM is based in New Delhi and JAM in Mumbai). IIPM also filed for damages. The article is no longer present at the web address cited because it was removed following the ex-parte order.

The current URL listed in the blocking order says only this much:

IIPM: Tall Claims

In furtherance of the order dated June 1, 2010 by the Hon civil Judge no 1 at Cachat, Silchar in case no Misc 20 of 2010, we are temporarily removing the link to the article

’The Truth about IIPM’s tall claims’ (originally published in JAM magazine print issue dated Jun 15-29, 2005).

We are currently seeking legal recourse against this injunction.

The matter is currently sub-judice.

Another URL set to be blocked is a story titled “The fraud that is IIPM”. In August, 2005, Mr. Gaurav Sabnis, a popular Indian blogger and an erstwhile employee of IBM, linked to Ms. Rashmi Bansal’s story about IIPM in his blog and added some of his own comments. In this post titled “The fraud that is IIPM” he cautioned prospective students against joining IIPM. He received a notarised email from the President of IIPM’s legal cell, advising him to either delete all of his posts about IIPM posted anywhere on the Internet and tender an apology or face a lawsuit amounting to Rs. 125 crore. Mr. Sabnis in an email conversation last week said that IIPM did not end up filing a case against him even though he refused to remove the article. The current blocking order will, however, achieve what threats of prosecution failed to achieve.

There are several other private blogs in this list for example, theunknownindian.blogspot.in - known to be highly critical of IIPM.

One such URL from curiousgawker.blogspot.in - seems absolutely innocuous. It was impossible to figure out why it has been blocked. It looks more like a press release than a review of IIPM.

Dedicated websites

Some URLs dedicated to criticising IIPM are also present on this list. For example iipmexposed.blogspot.in and iipmfraud.com - the first one has exactly one blog post which could be described as a negative review of IIPM. We were not able to access the content of  the latter as it appears to have been blocked already. We were also unable to assess right now whether the content of the former could qualify as slanderous or not.

News Outlets

What is very worrisome about the blocking order is that many of the URLs belong to reputed news sources:

Rediff

Outlook

Firstpost

Indian Express

Times of India

Economic Times

Kafila.org (Opinion/Analysis, with Censorship as a focus area)

Wall Street Journal

The job of news sources is to report developments, controversies, allow debate and analysis. If doing so amounts to defamation then reporting on many of the events on a daily basis would be a challenge for most of them. Also, would the offline equivalent of such an order mean that all these newspapers publish an apology or corrigendum for having reported on the issue? Unlikely. Is the Internet then a less democratic space than the offline world?

Mr. Shivam Vij of Kafila.org has published the blocked article again as an act of defiance against censorship.

An update

It appears that not only has the subdomain blogs.outlookindia.com been restored but also the blocked URLs from the subdomain.

Also, Mr. Arindam Chaudhuri has posted an explanation here: http://www.twitlonger.com/show/l298n5 through his official Twitter account.


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