News broadcaster India Today's suit against digital news portal Newslaundry is another example of a high-profile defamation case. This is the third defamation and copyright infringement case against Newslaundry after Times Now and Sakal Times. Though India Today sought damages to the tune of Rs 2 crores, Times Now and Sakal Times have sued Newslaundry for 100 crores and 65 crores respectively.
India Today alleged that Newslaundry uploaded various videos on its website and on social media platforms infringing on its copyright while making "untrue, unfair, disparaging as well as maliciously defamatory remarks" about the channel's news, reporting, management, and its news anchors.
A magistrate's court in Surat, Gujarat directed Congress chief Rahul Gandhi to appear before it on October 29 in connection with a defamation case filed against him by BJP MLA Purnesh Modi over his "Modi Surname" remarks.
Last week, Bollywood actor Shilpa Shetty and her husband Raj Kundra filed a defamation suit against actor Sherlyn Chopra seeking damages to the tune of Rs 50 crores.
In November 2020, lyricist Javed Akhtar sued Bollywood star and national award winner Kangana Ranaut for making defamatory and baseless allegations against him.
Earlier this year in May, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) slapped a Rs 1000 crore defamation suit against yoga guru Baba Ramdev over his controversial remarks against allopathic medicine in the treatment for COVID-19.
However, MJ Akbar's defamation suit against journalist Priya Ramani is one of the most significant. Akbar, a former union minister, had sued Ramani after she leveled allegations of sexual abuse against him.
Ram Jethmalani versus Subramaniam Swamy; Arun Jaitley versus Arvind Kejriwal; Jay Shah versus The Wire; Nusli Wadia versus Ratan Tata; the list of high-profile defamation cases goes on.
BOOM explains what defamation is and the debate surrounding this colonial-era law.
What is defamation?
Simply put, defamation is when whoever says or prints anything which causes damage to a person's reputation—living or dead. It is pertinent to note that anybody who repeats or copies the defamatory material with deliberate intent to harm a person's reputation is equally liable.
Defamation is of two types:
- Libel: A defamatory statement published in a written form.
- Slander: Where the defamatory statement is made verbally in spoken form.
Any person who feels his reputation has taken a hit because of something someone said can file a criminal or civil defamation suit against that person. Under criminal liability, a person convicted of defamation can be jailed for a maximum of two years in jail or a fine of both. In a civil defamation suit, a person who feels he has been defamed can move court seeking damages by way of monetary compensation.
However, there are 10 exceptions to this rule.
1) If a defamatory statement made against a person is true and is said in the interest of the public good.
2) Expressing an opinion about the conduct of a public servant in discharge of his functions.
3) Any opinion expressed about the conduct of a person, other than a public servant, who discharges any kind of public function.
4) Reporting of court proceedings or its verdict, as long as what is published is true.
5) Any commentary on regarding the merits of a case in regard to the conduct of a witness
6) Any criticism about a book, movie, or any performance that has been submitted for public consumption
7) Censure of a person by a person in authority
8) Any accusations made against a person by one in authority
9) Accusations or defamatory statements made against another person in order to protect one's self-interest
10) A caution made against a person in good faith
What do the courts say on defamation?
The Supreme Court in its 2016 verdict said that a person's reputation is an integral aspect of the right to life. "Reputation of one cannot be allowed to be crucified at the altar of the other's right of free speech," the Supreme Court had said in the Ram Jethmalani versus Subramaniam Swamy case.
The top court underscored the right to free speech but said this was not an "absolute right" and was "subject to imposition of reasonable restrictions".
Upholding the constitutional validity of criminal defamation laws, the top court had observed that the same did not interfere with one's right to free speech. "One is bound to tolerate criticism, dissent, and discordance but not expected to tolerate defamatory attack," the Supreme Court had said.
Earlier this year in February, a trial court in Delhi acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in the defamation case filed against her by former union minister MJ Akbar. "Right of reputation can't be protected at the cost of the right to dignity," the judge had said.
In 2017, Ramani wrote an article for Vogue speaking about sexual predators at the workplace where she described her ordeal during a job interview more than 20 years ago. Ramani's article did not name her abuser, but Akbar was outed as the one who conducted the interview in a subsequent tweet published in 2018.
The Priya Ramani-MJ Akbar case had set the discourse of the #MeToo movement in India.
While acquitting her, the judge has said that in isolation the statements made against Akbar would be defamatory, but the truth had come to Ramani's defence.
Defamation, a favoured tactic for SLAPP Suits
Defamation and copyright infringement suits are favoured tactics for SLAPP suits. SLAPP suits or strategic lawsuits against public participation are tactics employed by complainants to prevent further discourse of a particular topic.
"A defamation suit is definitely a tool that is oft used for harassment," advocate Sarim Naved told BOOM. "Defamation should work in a way that enables people who do not have access to a public platform to save themselves from false and harmful rumors, comments, and the like. Whenever a powerful person or organisation approaches a court seeking a remedy for defamation it is not about saving their reputation, but it is more about being punitive," he added.
"A suit for defamation such as this is a pretty cynical tactic given that very rarely do civil defamation cases go to trial. The main intent is to get an interim injunction to prevent public discourse about the entity in question, advocate Alok Prasanna told BOOM.
In a defamation suit, the burden of proof falls on the defendant to prove that their statement was not defamatory. Thus, if small organisations or individuals with limited funds are faced with a defamation suit, they are saddled with the burden of disproportionate legal costs.
The deeper issue also is that parties know that once they've got an interim injunction in the matter, they can sit back and delay the case for as long as they want to. They can put the onus on the party to try and get the injunction vacated, but they are rarely interested in final judgment providing their side of the story. Given how broken the civil justice system is, powerful parties know they can turn it into a tool to gag reporting on their deeds," Prasana, who co-founded Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy added.
In 2009, then Delhi High Court judge S Ravinder Bhat (he has since been elevated to the Supreme Court), had dismissed a defamation suit Crop Care Federation of India, an umbrella body of 84 pesticide manufacturers, had filed against Rajasthan Patrika for its 2004 series on the harmful effects of pesticides. "The present suit contains all the ingredients of a "Slap suit". A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Winning the lawsuit is not necessarily the intent of the person filing the SLAPP. In such instances the plaintiff's goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism," Justice Bhat had observed while dismissing the suit.
"Whatever may be the legal aspect of defamation, in my view, the court will also have to consider that this is a case which typifies larger media groups going after smaller media organisations to stop coverage which critiques the manner and functioning of mainstream media," advocate Shadan Farasat said.
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