We live in a digital age. We express our views on Twitter, build friendships on Facebook, and depend on the Internet for almost any work we do. Although universally true, these statements especially resonate with those who work in contemporary, digital media.
A large number of digital journalists now have no evidence of their work other than in the form of URLs. Imagine waking up one morning to find your life’s work gone — because of any reason — an eventuality not just disconcerting professionally, but one that would have bearing on future employment. Something similar happened this week.
Suprateek Chatterjee*, a journalist and film critic, tweeted this on Sunday, 17 September: “Good to know that Modi is one year closer to retirement/death #IChooseOptimism.”
While a large number of Twitter users reacted with indignation at a morbid tweet that appeared, on the surface, to wish death upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his birthday, in no time, the floodgates of hate opened. Messages poured in, both on Twitter and Chatterjee’s Facebook inbox, condemning his tweet. An army of supporters of Modi descended on him, spewing death, destruction and every kind of (un)imaginable venom on the film journalist.
Faced with the relentless trolling, Chatterjee, a known critic of Modi and the BJP-led government, clarified that he was commenting on his general mortality and was wishing for a political change, not the PM’s death.
Even Amit Malviya, the head of BJP’s IT cell, tweeted a screenshot of Chatterjee’s tweet.
Another journalist.. pic.twitter.com/LrjQlTtzo4
— Amit Malviya (@malviyamit) September 18, 2017
Eventually, as is usual with such concerted attacks, The Quint, a digital media organisation founded by Raghav Bahl, where Chatterjee was a contributing writer, got dragged into the mud-slinging.
Faced with the barrage of criticism for employing a writer who expressed such a sentiment publicly, The Quint decided to do some damage control.
They put a statement saying that they were “shocked” by Chatterjee’s views and therefore have decided to sever all ties with him. But that was not the end of it. What followed was far more bizarre.
In its statement, The Quint said that they are pulling down every story, mostly movie reviews, that Chatterjee has ever written for them.
The entertainment journalist has been writing on a freelance basis for a number of publications, including Open Magazine, GQ, Buzzfeed and The Caravan, for the last few months. None of these publications had anything to say on the matter.
This isn’t the first time something of this sort has happened with The Quint. Earlier this year, they decided to pull down all of Vikas Malhotra’s articles after he drew parallels between a photograph from Modi’s UP election road-show to late US president John F Kennedy’s assassination by a sniper. Malhotra used to be a blogger for The Quint.
HuffPost India reached out to the Quint to understand what guidelines they had in place for their authors’ social media usage, given their track record of taking down articles.
“We have so far not felt the need to frame a policy regarding the tweets of authors associated with The Quint. But we do expect all professionals who associate with The Quint to conform to basic thresholds of journalistic decorum and ethics.”
“We have so far not felt the need to frame a policy regarding the tweets of authors associated with The Quint. But we do expect all professionals who associate with The Quint to conform to basic thresholds of journalistic decorum and ethics,” Ritu Kapur, CEO and the co-founder of Quintillion Media, told HuffPost India.
Legal Ownership Of Intellectual Property
Is such a drastic step legal, and can a media organisation pull down an author’s articles without seeking their permission or even informing them? According to messages this HuffPost India writer has seen, Chatterjee was first asked to take his association with The Quint off his Twitter bio, something he agreed to do. He was then told that the media organisation has been ‘advised’ to ‘retract his stories for now’; he asked them not to do that. But he later found that all of his articles were taken down as well.
Sachin Gupta, an intellectual property lawyer, told HuffPost India that there was nothing ‘illegal’ about such a step. “They are free to do whatever they want to do. Once your article is published, it becomes the organisation’s property, they become the owner. And it’s up to them to decide what they want to do with it,” he said. Gupta pointed out that Section 17(a) of the copyright act says the same.
“In the case of a literary, dramatic or artistic work made by the author in the course of his employment by the proprietor of a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical under a contract of service or apprenticeship, for the purpose of publication in a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical, the said proprietor shall, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, be the first owner of the copyright in the work in so far as the copyright relates to the publication of the work in any newspaper, magazine or similar periodical, or to the reproduction of the work for the purpose of its being so published, but in all other respects the author shall be the first owner of the copyright in the work.”
Gupta said that unless the contract between the author and the publication specifically stated otherwise, the ownership of the work lay with the publication. Chatterjee told HuffPost India he had not signed any such specific agreement with The Quint.
‘A Harmful Precedence’
Noted film critic Raja Sen told HuffPost India that while Chatterjee’s tweet was “obnoxious”, the media organisation’s reaction to it “sets a very harmful precedence”. Sen also pointed out that the journalist in question wasn’t even a political writer, so the articles that were removed had nothing to do with politics.
“This is an unfortunate incident,” he said, while pointing out to a larger problem that freelancers in India face. “There’s no system in place to protect freelancers in the country. We have all had difficulties with publications as freelancers, there’s no safeguard. Most of the time, there’s no contract signed either,” he said. “You can sever all ties, but to delete their work is a bit of a head-in-the-sand reaction,” he added.
“You can sever all ties, but to delete their work is a bit of a head-in-the-sand reaction.”
Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire, said that while Chatterjee’s tweet is “totally off” and “not acceptable” and he “can’t blame the publication for removing the author from their roster of contributors”, deleting his earlier pieces is an “overkill and unnecessary”.
Varadarajan added that once an organisation edits and publishes something, they also “take responsibility” for it. “This is why removing all his pieces crosses a dangerous line,” he said.
But there’s noteworthy precedence.
In 2015, media watchdog The Hoot noted in a snippet that an article critical of Arun Jaitley was taken down by Firstpost. The commentary was written by Firstpost‘s then Editor-in-chief R Jagannathan. The move led to speculations of government interference.
C Rammanohar Reddy, ombudsman for Scroll.in and former editor of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), said Chatterjee’s tweet was in “poor taste, and most people would criticise it”. However, he said that there are no settled practices, or even ethics, when it comes to an author’s personal tweets.
Reddy pointed out a recent incident when The White House wanted an ESPN commentator to be fired after she criticised Trump on her personal Twitter account.
At a press conference, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said ESPN commentator Jemele Hill should be fired for her tweets calling President Donald Trump a “white supremacist”. While ESPN released a statement saying that Hill’s tweets do not represent its own position and that they were “inappropriate”, the journalist wasn’t fired.
“There is a lot of debate in North America and Europe about tweeting by journalists ‘in their individual capacity’ and what it means for their organisation.”
“There is a lot of debate in North America and Europe about tweeting by journalists ‘in their individual capacity’ and what it means for their organisation,” Reddy added.
Reddy said that while a media organisation is well within its rights to end its association with a journalist as long as it gives a “satisfactory reason”, removing all articles by the writer is “going overboard”.
“He has written them and they have been published — are we trying some kind of ‘erasure’?” he said. “I do not know about the decision being ethical or unethical — it is just plain wrong,” he said.
*Disclosure: Suprateek Chatterjee is a former employee of HuffPost India.