Want to be fried?
(The writer is Director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi)
I first learnt about SLAPP when we released a study about pesticides in colas.
PepsiCo had filed a defamation case against us in the Delhi High Court and our lawyer, fresh out of law school in Bangalore, jumped as he read through the company's petition saying this was a classic SLAPP case. We were bemused, knowing nothing about such legal intricacies. SLAPP, he explained, was an acronym in the US for 'strategic lawsuits against public participation'. These are libel or defamation cases filed by corporations against individuals and institutions, supposedly to defend their honour and business. The intention was to use the legal system to threaten, intimidate and silence.
But how, we asked. The companies who file SLAPP cases rarely win in court, but achieve their real objective to discourage others from speaking out. The defendants, who are invariably individuals, spend huge amount of time and money running to courts fighting the case. This harassment discourages others from petitioning government on public issues. An environmental activist in West Virginia was sued for US $200,000 for criticising a coal-mining company for polluting the local river. Cattle-ranchers filed a million dollar case against television celebrity Oprah Winfrey for hosting a show on mad cow disease and discussing dangers of eating contaminated beef. The list runs in thousands.
The most (in)famous of these cases was filed by junk food giant McDonald against two activists in Britain, who had in 1990 distributed a six-page leaflet on 'what was wrong with McDonald's'. The company accused them of defaming it because they had said that it contributes to cardiac diseases, cancer and diabetes. The company won the case in 1997 and it has become a precedent for corporate libel cases, commonly known as McLibel. Such cases particularly target individuals and media organisations so that the messenger is shot, along with the message.
But why should we be interested? The fact is that we are catching up with the world. Just in case you have missed this buzz, let me bring you to date.
YS Mohana Kumar is a doctor practicing in a nondescript village called Padre in Kerala. Unknown, till he noticed that people in his village were more diseased and deformed than most and started asking questions. One thing led to another and researchers - from different institutions - confirmed and reconfirmed the presence of residues of endosulfan, a pesticide, in blood, soil and water samples from the village. In 2003, Mohana Kumar received a legal notice from the lawyers of the Pesticide Association of India threatening legal action if he did not apologise and withdraw his statements immediately. His crime? Writing a letter in this magazine on these findings against the government-appointed OP Dubey committee, which had absolved the pesticide of the deadly ailments of people in Padre.
For the record, Down To Earth followed up investigations against the Dubey committee and found to its horror evidence of how data was fudged; how scientists were coerced and how industry influenced the findings of the committee. The committee's proceedings were challenged and investigations reopened by the government. Mohana Kumar was right but that clearly was not the point.
Madhumita Dutta is not a doctor, but an environmental activist who recently received legal summons to appear before a court in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh. Her crime is that she researched and published, with others, an investigation on acute pesticide poisoning in the district. The case filed by the pesticide industry association Crop Care Federation even implicates the designer of the publication and is aimed at harassing and warning others to desist or be destroyed.
Umendra Dutt runs an NGO in Punjab called Kheti Virasat Mission, which works on various farmer-related issues, including pesticide use. He has been sued for Rs 5 crore by United Phosphorous Limited, a leading pesticide manufacturer. His crime: discussing in public, health studies on pesticide exposure and how it could act as a trigger to diseases, and even lead to congenital malformations and genetic disorders. All clearly well-established in scientific studies across the world.
But it does not stop there. The company has also filed a case against the media giant, Bennett and Coleman, the publishers of the Times of India. Their crime is similar: publishing a report quoting Dutt in their daily newspaper, Mumbai Mirror.
The defamation case has been filed by the company alleging that the statements in the article will 'disparage our client's reputation' in the trade across the world. This is particularly intriguing, because the article does not mention the company at all, only pesticides and their health impacts.
But how do I know this? Because two weeks ago, my colleague Chandra Bhushan, received a letter from an NGO called the Centre for Environment and Agrochemicals, which enclosed a copy of this legal notice. The letter told him that if he was to attend a forthcoming meeting being organised by Kheti Virasat Mission he "will be made a party (to the case against Kheti Virasat) and unnecessarily dragged into litigation". In simple language a simple threat: we will sue you if you dare to attend.
It does not stop there. We called to check more about the NGO and received another letter. The letterhead was the same, but the signatory had changed. Now Rajju Shroff, the owner of United Phosphorous Limited wrote, saying, "The industry has decided to take legal actions and expose all your activities." I am sure we will hear from them again.
In these modern David-and-Goliath tales, I can only hope (and pray) that there are many, many more Davids.