How the Pawar’s Sakal Media and Pune police have been harassing Newslaundry reporter

Prateek Goyal reported about layoffs at Sakal Times. He was slapped with an FIR and Newslaundry with a Rs 65 crore defamation suit. Prateek obtained bail but now the police want to seize his laptop.

ByNL Team
How the Pawar’s Sakal Media and Pune police have been harassing Newslaundry reporter
Shambhavi Thakur
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On March 27, Newslaundry reported that the Sakal Media Group, one of Maharashtra’s leading media houses, had sacked 15 employees in violation of a government directive to not terminate workers, or cut their wages during the pandemic. The employees all worked in the editorial division of Sakal Times, a daily newspaper run by the Sakal Media Group.

Two and a half months later, the Sakal Times laid off its entire editorial staff of 50-60 people and shut down its print edition. Newslaundry duly reported this news on June 11.

On June 16, Newslaundry got a defamation notice for Rs 65 crore from Sakal Media Pvt Ltd alleging that our reports were false and defamatory.

It was the start of a relentless campaign of harassment that the Sakal Media group, with the help of the Pune police, has waged against our correspondent Prateek Goyal, who reported on the Sakal Times layoffs.

The Sakal Media group is owned and run by the politically influential Pawar family. The group’s board of directors, according to its website, is chaired by Pratap G Pawar, while his son Abhijit Pawar is the managing director. Pratap Pawar is the brother of Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, whose daughter Supriya Sule is also on the board. Pratap and Sharad Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar, is the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra.

We promptly responded to the defamation notice explaining that the allegations were baseless and asked Sakal Media to point out any facts that they found disputable. Below are the relevant parts of our response to the notice:

"We have received your notice claiming that Newslaundry carried false and defamatory news reports about your client ‘with malafide intention’ and ‘to settle some other score’. The claims are not only false but absurd and rejected.”
“Chiefly, you allege that our reports do not contain ‘true and correct facts’, yet you make no attempt to specify the factual details you find disputable. We would be interested to see what specific facts we are wrong on if you could point those out. These claims are particularly bizarre given that, in the best traditions of fair journalism, we reached out to Sakal Media group’s managing director Mr Abhijit Pawar, chief human resources manager Mr Vasudev Medankar, and COO Mr Mahendra Pisal, and accurately published their statements.”
"We reiterate that every factual detail contained in the two Newslaundry reports is accurate and verifiable. And we have ample evidence to establish this should we have to present our case in a court of law.”
“We find it distressing that a news organization will have such little understanding or respect for journalists to send such a letter.”
“At a time when the courts are dealing with such serious cases all across the country for you to suggest a Rs 65 crore settlement for such a frivolous case is a disrespect of not just journalism but the precious time of courts. However, should you pursue that course, we will be happy to meet you in a court of law."

Instead of explaining what specific factual details in our stories they disputed, the Sakal Media group filed an FIR against Prateek. It was filed on September 16 by Mahendra Pisal, who identified himself as the chief administrative officer of Sakal Media Pvt Ltd.

In his complaint, registered at the Vishrambaug police station in Pune, Pisal claimed that Prateek had published defamatory articles related to the Sakal Times.

“Goyal while publishing said articles did not seek prior permission from Sakal Media Group and misused its official logo (trademark) cunningly,” he added. “It is because of the said act that our market share has crumbled leading to huge economic losses and the group office bearers and employees had to face the brunt of it unnecessarily.”

The same day the FIR was filed, Prateek was informed by neighbours that while he was out, the police had visited his home to arrest him. The police, he was told, were accompanied by a vehicle of the Sakal Media group. Prateek also learned that the visiting policemen were from the Vishrambaug station.

Prateek called the Vishrambaug station house officer, Dadasaheb Chuddappa, and asked why the police had gone to his home. The officer replied it was because the Sakal Media group had filed an FIR against him under the trademark law for using their logo in his story. He wouldn’t confirm if the police had gone to arrest the Newslaundry reporter.

Prateek asked for a copy of the FIR filed against him, but Chuddappa refused.

Newslaundry then approached the Mumbai High Court seeking the quashing of the FIR as well as to the Pune district court seeking anticipatory bail for Prateek.

The high court on October 20 ruled that the police could proceed with the investigation, but shall not file a chargesheet without its permission. The matter will be heard again on November 24.

Soon after, Prateek secured anticipatory bail from the district court and went to the Vishrambaug station on October 30 to complete the legal formalities mandated by the bail order. He was told to return the following day with a guarantor to complete the formalities.

Prateek went back the next day and met the SHO, Chuddappa. It was an unpleasant meeting.

“You think you can damage Sakal?” Chuddappa demanded to know from the reporter. “Sakal can buy 50 reporters like you. They are too big and you aren’t even a journalist. You don’t have a press like Sakal. What is Newslaundry, it is just an online thing.”

When Prateek tried to reason that he was merely doing his job as a journalist, Chuddappa said, “You just dare use their logo again. I will put you guys in lockup.”

As Prateek was doing the paperwork, a police officer told him that they had been reluctant to take the Sakal Media group’s complaint against him but were pressured by the Maharashtra home ministry into registering the FIR.

Now, the police want to seize Prateek’s laptop.

At around 9.05 pm on November 1, Prateek received a call from the investigating officer, Deepak Jadhav, who demanded Prateek hand over his laptop at the police station the next day. Prateek asked if he could get a copy of the order or notice to seize his laptop. The police officer said a verbal order was enough. Prateek also asked if the police would provide the hash value of his laptop if he handed it over. When the police seize a digital device, they are required to provide the owner its hash value, a numeric value that will change if the device is used or tampered with. The hash value thus acts as an electronic seal on the device. Jadhav said he couldn’t entertain the request.

All this for Newslaundry publishing a simple, factual report.

EDITOR's NOTE: We report this in order to keep our readers updated about the reports we file, accurately adhering to the highest standards of free and fair journalism. This is without prejudice to the investigation and legal processes. We shall cooperate as required and instructed by the courts.

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