The Delhi High Court has vacated its interim orders of April 2017 restraining publication of certain impugned allegations of sexual harassment made against Mahesh Murthy, a Mumbai-based venture capitalist, by several women. A single-judge bench presided by Justice Jayanth Nath passed the order on Monday.
FactorDaily and its CEO and then editor-in-chief, Pankaj Mishra, were one among 18 defendants named in a defamation case filed by Murthy. Others named as defendants included women such as author Rashmi Bansal, entrepreneurs Pooja Chauhan and Wamika Iyer, who had called out his inappropriate behaviour. Besides FactorDaily, journalists and executives at publications such as Deccan Chronicle, YourStory, and SheThePeople were named in the suit.
Murthy had even made two of his partners in SeedFund, an early-stage venture fund, defendants in the defamation case.
FactorDaily in April and May of 2017 had reported three stories of sexual harassment allegations against Murthy by six women — three of who went on record with their experience. “Several other instances had come before us but the women were not comfortable having their bitter experiences brought out in public,” recounts Mishra, who reported the stories. “What was amazing was that these were independent accounts and the women didn’t know one another.”
The accounts of the alleged harassment, almost all during professional interactions, dated from 2003 to 2016.
In his order on Monday, Justice Nath wrote: “…as per defendants No.1, 2, 15 and 16, they have had an unpleasant or perhaps more than unpleasant experience with the plaintiff. …the said defendants and other defendants seek to place in public domain. Prima facie, it cannot be said that the said defendants have no case whatsoever or are misusing the freedom of speech to tarnish/defame the plaintiff.” Defendant 1 is Chauhan, 2 Iyer, 15 Bansal, and 16 a person by the name Anamika Chadha.
The intentions of defendants 15 and 16 are not mala fide, the order concluded. Some relevant excerpts from the order:
- Regarding the publication by defendants No. 15 and 16 the only plea of the plaintiff is that this relates to alleged events more than a decade old. The plaintiff admits that defendants No. 15 and 16 are successful individuals. There is no explanation given why defendants No. 15 and 16 have chosen to make the necessary publications. There appears to be no reason to conclude that the said defendants have acted in a mala fide manner.
- In my opinion, it would not be reasonable in the facts and circumstances to fetter the narration of alleged facts and comments of defendants No. 1, 2, 15 and 16 and other defendants. The said defendants have a right to exercise their right of freedom of speech. If these incidents and claims of the said defendants are in trial proved to be false, the plaintiff would have a right to claim damages.
- The plaintiff has failed to make out a prima facie case. In my opinion, balance of convenience is also not in favour of the plaintiff.
- Accordingly, the interim order dated 18.04.2017 and 28.04.2017 is vacated. The present applications are disposed of accordingly.
Murthy’s SeedFund partners, Pravin Gandhi and Bharati Jacob, in interviews with FactorDaily in April 2017 had confirmed that they had heard rumours of his alleged transgressions. There were at least two instances when the fund’s limited partners (institutions or individuals who give money to venture capital funds to manage) had asked questions of Murthy’s behaviour, Gandhi had said then.
FactorDaily’s first story was on April 21, 2017: Mahesh Murthy in new sexual misconduct charges; Seedfund says had heard other rumours. The story talked about author Bansal’s and an HR manager, Anamika’s allegations of harassment against Murthy. “Immediately after this story, others reached out to us detailing their experiences. They wanted their stories to be told as well,” says Mishra. “This was India’s #metoo moment, except it didn’t become a movement.” The #metoo movement, initially centred around Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, of women coming out in the open with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against prominent men started later in October 2017.
The second story ran on April 28, 2017 — More sexual misconduct allegations emerge against Mahesh Murthy, one as late as 2016 — with even more sordid details. It had the experience of Swati Pandey, a Reuters reporter in Sydney now, from 2003 when she was just 19 years old and two others. And, the third story on May 16, 2017, was of a woman executive at an Indian IT giant from 2006. Murthy had exchanged sexually loaded messages with her while pitching services of Pinstorm, a marketing company he ran then. Her employer chose not to do business with Pinstorm when the incident was brought to its notice.
FactorDaily has always maintained its journalistic integrity thoroughly living by its code of conduct for each of its stories. Every story that was published was verified as per the standards prescribed by the Press Council. Further, Murthy was reached out to by FactorDaily prior to publication of these stories for his comments and his version of events. He is yet to give us any substantive response.
(The Delhi High Court’s order (in case numbered CS(OS) 123/2017) is in the public domain and was accessed by FactorDaily here.)
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Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Jay Vijayan and Girish Mathrubootham among its investors. Accel Partners and Blume Ventures are venture capital firms with investments in several companies. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. Jay Vijayan and Girish Mathrubootham are entrepreneurs and angel investors. None of FactorDaily’s investors has any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.