Thursday, August 12, 2010

Activists Win Against Pesticide Industry in Supreme Court Free Speech Case

Large and powerful corporations don't typically take criticism well. In places where the military rules, there are often fairly straightforward ways to muzzle opposition-- I'm not going to go into those here, but if you want to read an interesting book on the subject, try The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Of course there are times when the Indian state intervenes directly on behalf of big companies--sometimes for it's own reasons, sometimes under pressure from powerful "allies".  This may involve the forcible displacement of poor people or forest dwellers. It may involve the protection of corporations, like Union Carbide/Dow, from paying the true cost of the crimes they've committed.  Sometimes the state even goes so far as to save corporations from having to worry about the crimes they may commit someday--the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill is an example of this.

At times, corporations also try to use the legal system to punish people who criticise them.  This strikes at the heart of freedom of expression.  The BRAI Bill is a particularly stark example of this. More common is the practice of censorship through Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPP involves the use of lawsuits to punish and intimidate people for what they say. Imagine having to get legal help, go to court, etc. because of a frivolous lawsuit.  Not something most of us want to do.  

Given all this, it was very nice to hear that a group of environmentalists (including Ravi Agarwal, who we've featured here at the Dhaba) recently beat a SLAPP suit brought by an association of pesticide manufacturers. Here's an excerpt from the press release: 
A two Judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, on 20th July, 2010, quashed the case criminal defamation case against 11 activists initiated by the Crop Care Federation (a consortium of pesticide manufacturing companies earlier known as Pesticides Associations of India) in the Magistrate Court of Warangal for publishing a report titled "The Killing Fields of Warangal" in 2002. The report which was a preliminary investigation of pesticides caused deaths in the cotton belt of Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh (India) was termed defamatory by the largest and most powerful pesticide companies in the country. In its judgement on 20th July 2010, the Honourable Court observes that, "The general tenor of the report indicates that the report meant to focus the harmful effects of exposure to pesticides. It is quite evident from the report that it was not meant to harm, hurt or defame any individual or the manufacturing company." The ruling marks a landmark judgment favouring freedom of speech and transparency and was fought for by the very well known Indian environmental lawyer, Mr. Raj Panjwani.

This SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) type litigation, brought upon by one section of pesticide industries, was filed in Warangal and would have resulted in a long and expensive trial lasting for years, which had begun over 5 years ago. The Warangal court had also issued non-bailable arrest warrants against some of the accused, in 2007, after Andhra Pradesh High Court had dismissed the appeal to quash the proceedings.

This is one of the first times that the Pesticide manufacturers, who have been filing many civil and criminal defamation cases against environmentalists, for speaking or writing on pesticides, have lost.
This is very good news, and we should celebrate.  But it should make us aware of a deeper problem.  If activists who write a good faith report about the affects of poison on people end up having to prove their innocence by taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court, then we are in trouble.  Many people will not be able or willing to speak up if that is the price they have to pay.  I'm not sure what the answer is, but it seems to me that there should be some penalty for corporations and people who bring lawsuits that are obviously frivolous.  

One penalty we might hope to make corporations pay for this kind of suit is bad publicity.   I'd love to see a major paper look at the SLAPP issue and how it works in India. It's an important story in itself.  And the very act of shining the light on this kind of misuse of corporate power could be an important deterrent against this kind of behavior in the future. That's the kind of thing we would all benefit from.

For more information please contact:
New Delhi: Ravi Agarwal 9810037355
Warangal: P. Damoder: 9849346491 
Hyderabad: Dr.D. Narasimha Reddy: 9010205742 
Chennai: Madhumita Dutta: & Rajesh Rangarajan: 9840113028


  1. Unfortunately this isn't restricted to just India. Food slander laws in the US have been used in the same way.

    I wonder how we can solve this. Slander laws are needed, but how to decide which ones are filed to intimidate? I think perhaps an initial 10 minute review by a magistrate to determine intent before anything else?

    After all, the onus must be placed on the person who makes the slander claim.

  2. @Bhagwad. How to solve balance this with the need to for protection from slander is important. I think your suggestion might make sense, but I know less than I should about how the mechanics would work. Whatever is done, the need for free speech should be protected when there is doubt in the matter. And people who have public profiles (film stars, politicians, companies etc.) should probably have to put up with more, since they have invited public scrutiny by being in the public eye. Again, the benefit of the doubt should go to open speech, since that will foster debate which will help us all.


What do you think?