Criticism or defamation?

5 November 2014

What happens if a government does not like the findings of a think tank? They can issue a statement claiming that the researchers did not do their work properly, that the paper or papers lack scientific credibility, that the researchers did not have the latest data, etc.

Governments may even be supported by ‘friendly’ think tanks (often those interested in the contracts that they have to offer or who share the ruling party’s ideology) who may come up with new reports to challenge the first think tank’s findings. Corporations and business lobbies could follow a similar approach.

In democracies, the researchers may feel slightly under pressure but, most likely, the opposition media will support them (if it exists). They may even become the subject of personal attacks, but this is like to pass.

In any case, soon, everyone will realise that think tanks do not matter all that much and they will forget all about it. The debate is likely to move away from the think tanks to the media and the government.

But something else has been happening that could be a source of concern. In the US, an academic has sued a think tank for questioning his findings. And in India, threats have been made to sue a US-based think tank for defamation:

The government is considering legal action, including launching a defamation suit against US think-tank American Enterprise Institute research scholar Roger Bate, for maligning the country and running a smear campaign against the Indian pharmaceutical industry through a recent study.

The study by the AEI concludes that the drugs that India sells to Africa are of an inferior quality than the ones it sells to other countries, including China, Brazil, Turkey, Thailand and Russia.

It was launched, as any think tank would do, to coincide with the visit of India’s president, Mr Mori, to the US: perfect timing for maximum impact.

Unfortunately, Indian pharmaceutical companies took offence and the India Brand Equity Foundation, (IBEF, a trust set up by the ministry of commerce & industry), apparently at the behest of the government, has taken it upon-itself to threaten the American Enterprise Institute and the authors of the study with a defamation suit.

Defamation legislation is a surprisingly big deal in many developing countries. Rather than accept that they have been caught with their hands dirty and resign, politicians tend to hold on to their posts for as long as they can. Often, even if they want to leave, their bosses won’t let them. And where defamation laws can be used they will use them.

Often, the main target of these suits has been the media or NGO activists. Think tanks, academic centres, and researchers themselves were not at risk.

Recently, however, a number of factors have come together to make them a possible target of this kind of litigation.

To begin with, funders are pressuring think tanks not just to try to influence policy but to demonstrate that they are influential –and to demonstrate it in public. This makes think tanks particularly vulnerable to accusations of meddling with politics –an accusation that politicians who have something to hide like to use. This could be particularly worrisome for think tanks that are funded by foreign governments.

A second process is the investment in communications capacity that think tanks have undertaken. They are certainly much more capable of reaching and influencing the public agenda than they were in the past. This makes them open to, like celebrities and newsmakers, death by media.

And finally, there is, among many emerging economies and middle-income developing countries, a kind of middle-class lack of confidence that means that their governments and leaders take themselves way too seriously. They are increasingly likely to react to criticism, perfectly valid and justifiable, as if it was an attack on the State: just short of treason.

This gives corrupt and incompetent leaders and powerful individuals and corporations an excuse to hold on to their posts even when all evidence suggests they should be letting go. They can always rely on a favourable verdict. If the critics are found at fault of defamation then, by default, they can claim innocence.

Here is a good source of information on defamation laws around the world. Here are some examples of cases that can be relevant to think tanks:

  • Brazil: As of September 29, 2009, a US freelance journalist Joe Sharkey who covered a 2006 plane crash in Brazil in which he was a passenger, faces a civil defamation suit for comments in his blog. In a report published by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, the plaintiff is identified as a private citizen of Brazil, who claims that Sharkey offended Brazil’s honor in comments made on the journalist’s blog.
  • Egypt: According to a report by the BBC, Egypt’s Press Law was amended to allow for increased fines in cases where an official is accused of corruption. Prison sentences for serious media crimes, like libeling the president and foreign heads of state, remain.
  • Indonesia: In 2008, the Law Regarding Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) was passed in Indonesia’s parliament and contains a provision criminalizing defamation and insult on the Internet. Alleged defamation by an individual communicated over the Internet can be punished with up to six years’ imprisonment and fined up to Rp1 billion (approximately US$106,000).

The point is not that these laws are being used or that they may be used against think tanks. The point is that they may be used to threaten (openly or otherwise) or disincentive the kind of activities that think tanks should pursue.

Nobody should read this and take it to mean that they should close ranks and retreat to the comforts of academic communications. Instead, the implication of this is the exact opposite.

By participating in political debate more publicly, think tanks protect themselves against unfounded criticism and threats. By explaining what they do and their roles in society they can avoid critiques that attempt to present them as lobbyists or illegitimate political actors. They must communicate more rather than less. Be more, rather than less, transparent.

Similarly, they need to work together to address these risks. Influencing the policy/legal regime -including freedom of information policies, access to official data, as well as civil society legislation, defamation legislation, and a number of other relevant issues- should be at the top of their research agenda.