The Newslaundry website accuses the group of waging a “relentless campaign of harassment” and even “a war” against its reporter, Prateek Goyal,
On 27 March, Goyal reported that the group planned to lay off 15 employees from its newspaper, the Sakal Times, in violation of a Maharashtra state ban on layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. In a second article on 11 June, he revealed that the group now planned to lay off around 50 employees from the newspaper and to shut down its print edition.
Five days later, the Sakal Group notified Newslaundry that it regarded the articles as “false and defamatory” and that it was suing the website for 650 million rupees (7.5 million euros) in damages for “loss of reputation” and “mental agonies.”
“Their claims were absurd,” Goyal told RSF. “They didn’t explain what was ‘false’ in my stories. My story was based on facts for which I have evidence. If they can point out anything that is incorrect, as a reporter I am willing to be corrected and apologize for any mistake.”
In fact, no lawsuit materialized. But Sakal went on the attack again in September, bringing a criminal case against Goyal for alleged misuse of its official logo, because the media group’s logo had been used to illustrate the two stories.
“This does not constitute violation of the Trademark Act,” Newslaundry lawyer Nipun Katyal told RSF. “The logo was not used for any commercial purpose. It is a routine practice to carry the picture of the company’s logo while reporting on it.”
As a result of this complaint, Goyal is being harassed by the police in Pune, the city where he is based. “The police are clearly after him,” said Katyal, adding that he is worried about his client’s safety. “They call him for no reason, ask irrelevant questions. It’s a daily harassment. He cannot stay in his own house in peace, and is having to shift to his friends’ places’ in other parts of the city, simply to avoid police harassment.”
Katyal has referred the harassment to the high court in Mumbai, the state capital, where a hearing is due to be held tomorrow.
“We call on the Mumbai court’s judges to end Prateek Goyal’s nightmare by immediately dismissing this absurd accusation about the use of a logo,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We also ask Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray to ensure that his government ends any kind of interference in the police apparatus with the aim of harassing journalists who cause annoyance. His national and international credibility is at stake.”
According to Goyal, a police officer speaking on condition of anonymity said he and his colleagues are being subjected to a great deal of pressure by the Maharashtra interior ministry. This is ascribed to the fact that the Sakal Group’s owners come from a powerful local family that is related to Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar and his uncle, Sharad Pawar, the head of Nationalist Congress Party, which is part of Maharashtra’s ruling coalition
In the latest episode in the harassment of Goyal, the Pune police are demanding that he hand over his laptop. “I don’t understand why they need my laptop to investigate a trademark violation case,” he said. “What if they tamper with it, plant an evidence and slap more sinister charges on me.”
Many observers point out that this would not the first time the Pune police have done this. In June 2018, they arrested nine human rights defenders, including reporter and columnist Gautam Navlakha, for supposedly plotting to kill the prime minister. The only evidence against them came from their computers and phones, which the police had previously confiscated.
Detained since 14 April, when he was arrested again on the basis of the same questionable evidence, Navlakha is facing a possible seven-year prison sentence. Goyal is very concerned that he could now suffer a similar fate because of the stories he wrote in March and June.
In India, many legislative safeguards protect press freedom in theory but they are often flouted in practice. It is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.