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US Lawsuit on Fox News: Press Freedom Vs Disinformation

  • IASbaba
  • February 11, 2021
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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INTERNATIONAL / RIGHTS/ GOVERNANCE

Topics:

  • GS-2: Fundamental Rights: Freedom of Speech
  • GS-2: Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests 
  • GS-3: Role of media and social networking sites in internal security challenges 

US Lawsuit on Fox News: Press Freedom Vs Disinformation

Context: Smartmatic, which makes voting machines, has filed a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit against American media powerhouse Fox News for false election claims they had made.

What is the case about?

  • In a 258-page lawsuit, the company claimed that the Fox news media invented a story that the election was stolen from Trump and made disparaging statements against Smartmatic, alleging that its machines and software platforms hacked to allow Democrats to seize the election. 
  • In one show, Smartmatic was represented by Fox News as a “Venezuela company under the control of corrupt dictators from socialist countries.”
  • Although these claims did not change the result of the election, Smartmatic claimed that the news media organisation and its hosts profited in ratings and advertisements from spreading this narrative
  • On the other hand, the company suffered a loss of reputation and also received hate mails and death threats from those who believed in these claims
  • Fox News moved the court seeking to dismiss the lawsuit claiming it is an attempt to chill First Amendment Rights under the Constitution (express recognition of freedom of press)

Significance of the case

  • Fight against fake News: The lawsuit claiming such huge damages is being seen as a test case for fighting disinformation.
  • Corrective actions of Fox News causes doubt: Even before the lawsuit has had a hearing, Fox News’ cancellation of the show in which the host is a defendant in case, is seen as a course-correction measure. 
  • Previous measures yielded little results: Advertising boycotts, and mass campaigns against fake news have had little impact over the years.
  • Freedom of Press Vs Defamation Law: With the First Amendment protections, defamation law is rather unsympathetic to the plaintiff (person filing case), especially public figures and those holding public offices. However, it is significant that the lawsuit has been brought about by a private party, which relatively has a higher degree of protection than public figures to protect its rights.
  • Judicial Precedence in Defamation Law:  In the US, the landmark 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan redefined libel(defamation) law in favour of media. The case set the standard that to win a libel suit in matters involving public concerns, it is not enough to simply prove that a false statement of fact was made but they would be required to prove either malice -a deliberate attempt to harm the plaintiff or a “reckless disregard” for facts. So Smartmatic Company has tough battle to fight
  • Judgement Global Precedence: Although the express recognition of freedom of press in the First Amendment to the US Constitution places the American media in a unique position, the case is expected to have seminal consequence for balancing press freedoms and penalising disinformation across the globe.

Do You Know?

  • India’s Constitution, unlike in the US, does not distinguish the press in guaranteeing free speech. 
  • Article 19(1)(a), which recognises freedom of speech and expression, is for every citizen. The press doesn’t qualify as a separate category for rights, but the collective right to free speech includes every individual journalist.
  • Compared to the US law, India’s civil defamation law is in favour of the plaintiff. The plaintiff would just need to prove that the statement made against him results in lowering his or her reputation and proof of Intent to defame is not required.

Connecting the dots:

  • On regulation of Digital media (Sudarshan TV Case): Click here

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