India Today Editor Fired for Tweeting Against Fake News Hints at Legal Action

"What began with a tweet must also end with a tweet."

New Delhi: Angshukanta Chakraborty, the DailyO political editor fired for a tweet by the website’s parent company, the India Today Group, issued a statement on Wednesday slamming the organisation for ‘unlawfully’ terminating her contract.

The tweet for which she was sacked was posted on February 4. It was a general comment on media organisations shielding journalists spreading fake news, Chakraborty told The Wire.

Responding to The Wire‘s questions, India Today‘s social media head Prerna Mishra on Tuesday had claimed that Chakravorty’s services were terminated due to breach of editorial conduct and claimed that she was counselled multiple times prior to taking any action. She also said that an internal panel was formed to look in to the matter.

Chakravorty says that she was never asked for any explanation by any “internal panel” and neither was she aware that such a panel existed.

In her letter to the India Today Group, a copy of which she also tweeted on Wednesday, Chakraborty shared her ordeal in detail. The Wire is reproducing the full text of the letter below:

It is with deep regret that I, Angshukanta Chakraborty, wish to put it on record that on February 12, 2018, I was served a termination notice as per clause 20 of my service agreement with India Today, and that it’s unacceptable and unlawful on the part of India Today to have served me the said notice.

I wish to put across my side of the story. Here it is:

I joined DailyO, the opinion platform of the India Today group, on May 4, 2015, and since then have consistently written on various political and cultural issues, many of which have been appreciated, and shared on social media by seniors in the profession. In the annual assessment of 2017, the organisation said in an official letter addressed to me that my performance had “exceeded expectations”. Within the platform, I was designated the Political Editor. I have had cordial relationship with all my colleagues, both within DailyO as well as with those belonging to other departments at India Today.

On Sunday, February 4, 2018, 9:58 pm, I had posted a tweet that had the following text: “Promoters turning a blind eye to hate-mongering, fake news spreading news anchors, editors, reporters and writers, or hiring them in the first place, must be tried in court as hate speech enablers-profiteers. Must be boycotted socially by secular politicians & industrialists.”

The tweet barely got any traction, and had sunk in my timeline, until on Monday, February 5, 2018, at around 9:40 pm, I received a call from my editor that the tweet in question had been noticed by the organisation. He informed me that the management wanted the tweet deleted.

I replied that the tweet didn’t have any names, didn’t tag anyone, used plural nouns, and was intended as a general comment on the state of the media. At DailyO, I had written commentary on multiple issues, including quite a few on the state of the Indian media. In most of my pieces, I had urged that far higher standards of journalistic ethics must be strived for, and that it was a collective responsibility that everyone with a stake or role in media must carry out. My tweet was consistent with the ideas I had long been expressing in my columns. Hence, I conveyed it to him that I didn’t consider it necessary to delete the tweet.

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It must be said that early in the month of January this year, all India Today employees were asked to abide by fresh company guidelines in their social media activity, and add the disclaimer that the tweets/retweets were posted in personal capacity. I had immediately complied by the rule and added the disclaimer on my Twitter bio: “Views are personal.” [I removed it only after I had been terminated from service and had exited the India Today Mediaplex on February 12, 2018.]

I was informed on Tuesday, February 6, morning – at around 10 am – that there was to be a “chat”. I had sent in a story idea in the afternoon, but got the reply that the “chat” had to be had before I worked on anything. That evening, a meeting was held, in which my editor, another DailyO colleague, and I were present. I was told to be pragmatic and delete the tweet. I replied I did not consider it necessary to do so, since my views were personal (as indicated in the disclaimer), the tweet was on my personal Twitter account/handle, and not that of the company’s Twitter handle. In any event, the tweet represented my idea of the state of the media, in India and abroad, and did not reflect the company’s views.

After the meeting, I went on to write the article that I had suggested. I wrote two byline pieces that week, in additional to basic editorials. On Friday, February 9, 2018, the editor treated the team to a hearty biriyani lunch at the canteen, in the hope of keeping up the spirits of his team members. The week ended with the usual political cacophony and team camaraderie, some shared chai and running story ideas past each other. I had weekends off, with occasional light writing or editing dispatched from home. The past weekend was no different, except for the fact that it turned out to be the last of my almost three-year stint at India Today.

I was told on Monday, February 12, 2018, morning that there was to be a team meeting at 2 pm, and I reached in time for that. The editor and my DailyO colleague who held the February 6 meeting with me, were also expecting a team meeting to be held at 2 pm on Monday, and were waiting to be called for that, along with others, including me, of course. At around2:30 pm, I received a call from a number not saved on my phone and it turned out to be from someone with the Human Resources department. I was asked to come down for a quick chat.

At the meeting, the HR person asked if I was aware of India Today’s social media policy, to which I replied in the affirmative. The HR person said that the social media team of the company was perusing everyone’s posts carefully, and that my tweet had been found not adhering to the social media policy. When I asked her if she had seen or read the tweet herself, then she replied she hadn’t. I showed her the tweet and asked her to explain what it was about the tweet that the company found objectionable. I reiterated that it was a moral comment on the state of the media, and as a journalist and an opinion writer, I was merely upholding the very basics of journalistic ethics. I repeated that no identifiable individual was tagged, named; neither was this about any one organisation per se. The HR person quickly said there was a clear “difference of opinion” between me and my employers. And that was ground for action.

The HR person was already carrying with her the termination notice dated February 12, 2018. I was presented with three options. One: Delete the tweet. Two: Resign and serve the notice period. Three: Face termination of service. I told her Iwouldn’t resign because I didn’t think I was guilty at all.

At that point the HR person handed over to me a termination notice dated February 12, 2018, purporting to be under clause 20 of my employment contact which reads as follows: “During the pendency of this Contract, subsequent to the confirmation, either party may terminate the contract without assigning any reason thereof by giving one month’s notice or any amount equal to one month’s salary in lieu of notice to the other party.”

My office identity card was confiscated with immediate effect and I was not allowed to access my system (office desktop).  I have neither been given one month notice and pay in lieu of notice, nor have I been paid for the working days in the month of February. Since then I have not been allowed to enter the office.

Although the termination is purported to be one without assigning reason, it is actually a termination for misconduct being based on the fact that I refused to delete the tweet which I was asked to do. Clearly, my decision not to delete my tweet was treated as a refusal to obey orders, constituting a misconduct, according to the India Today management. The so-called “difference of opinion” mentioned by HR person was obviously about my refusal to delete the tweet, which was considered objectionable by the management. The termination is therefore not bona-fide under clause 20 but a subterfuge for an unlawful termination for misconduct.  

I may add that while I am obliged to obey all lawful and reasonable orders, the order to delete the tweet or resign was neither lawful nor reasonable.

The exercise of powers under clause 20 is therefore a colourable exercise of power and therefore bad in law. I believe I have not only acted with utmost integrity insofar as trying my best to strive for higher journalistic standards, through both my columns for DailyO and my articulation on social media platforms, which have been pro-justice, pro-liberty, pro-equality and pro-constitutionality always, but also, in articulating a need for greater ethics within media organisations, to be practiced by their owners and their employees, journalists almost all alike, I have been true to my core principles.

However, in a statement published by a number of websites, India Today Group has said: “Angshukanta Chakraborty’s services were terminated due to breach of editorial conduct. The India Today Group prides itself in being the gold standard of credible journalism. Our Code of Conduct is sacrosanct across all our mediums, including social media. Actions contrary to our editorial ethos have no place in our organisation. As was done in the case, the concerned employee is counselled multiple times prior to taking any action. The violation is also investigated by an internal panel and taken to logical conclusion. This individual case, being presented in any other manner, is mala fide and should be understood as such.”

I must add here that I was never asked for any explanation by any “internal panel”; neither was I aware that there was indeed such a panel. An investigation behind my back is not binding on me. Can India Today explain exactly what was objectionable about calling for accountability from media organisations over fake news and hate speech? Would it stand for anything otherwise? If not, then why was I terminated in the first place? Isn’t this fundamentally self-contradictory on part of India Today, which says it’s the “gold standard” of journalism, with a “democratic newsroom”?

India Today has not only acted unlawfully, but has also victimised me for exercising my right to freedom of speech and expression, which is guaranteed by the Constitution under Article 19(1)(a), which I have used to call for abiding by basic principles of journalism.

My tweet, posted through my personal handle, is completely in keeping with the “gold standard of journalism” which India Today professes to uphold. It was a moral comment on the general state of the media, which has been of late weighed down by fake news. I can cite multiple articles published by India Today talking about the menace of fake news and hate speech, the enablers, covert or overt, of which, unless acted upon, will become a terribly divisive socio-political force. My contract of employment in no way prevents me from expressing my opinion on social media, especially when they happened to coincide with the views of the management.

I have, therefore, pinned the tweet on my Twitter page.

This is to give you notice that I will take such action against you as advised to vindicate my fundamental right to free speech and expression and my integrity as a journalist.

Since you chose to justify your actions in terminating me from my contract prematurely on public platforms, I too am choosing to post this letter to you on a public platform.

What began with a tweet must also end with a tweet.

The Wire was the first media organisation to report the issue on Tuesday.