Free Press Journal

Changing face of the Defamation Suit

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Admittedly, it is all too easy to use defamation law to bully and silence journalists and activists. Big Business, after all, can deploy far more legal firepower than a small media outfit and outspend it many times over. A recent example of a corporate suing a publication is that of the Essar Group, which took exception to an article in The Caravan on the business house’s attempts to “manage” mediapersons and politicians through gifts and other incentives. An earlier case was that of the Crop Care Foundation of India against Rajasthan Patrika.

Many a seasoned journalist has a Defamation Suit or two hanging in the closet. Doyens such as the late Khushwant Singh and Vinod Mehta, who wore their journalistic independence on their sleeves and habitually needled politicians and businessmen, were unfazed by the occasional libel suit. It was one of the acknowledged hazards of the profession, which they took it in their stride.

Politicians have always been fair game for journalists. As public representatives, they are naturally subjected to close scrutiny and expected to adhere to higher standards of conduct. Time was when a politician pilloried in a news report would dismiss it with a public denial and move on, often continuing to maintain a friendly relationship with the reporter concerned. In these acrimonious times, however, the Defamation Suit is being increasingly deployed and not just by politicians.


Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami, for example, has been amassing defamation suits like a philatelist collects stamps. He has attracted the ire of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, BJP MP and Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s son Dushyant Singh, Karnatka minister K J George and retired Supreme Court justice P B Sawant, all of whom sued him for defamation. The late Gauri Lankesh, editor of a journal which bore her name, had been convicted in a defamation case filed by BJP MP Pralhad Joshi shortly before she was gunned down. The latest Defamation Suit to attract public attention is the one filed by BJP president Amit Shah’s businessman son, Jay, against the news portal, The Wire.

Being sued by an irate politician or businessman does not necessarily mean the report in question is baseless. After all, journalists rely on unnamed sources and their handwriten notes can be admitted as evidence. Often, the target of a news report will feel compelled to file a suit, as not doing so may be seen as a tacit admission of guilt. Or, it may be a SLAPP suit – a strategic law suit against public participation – which is intended to harass and intimidate rather than to seek redress.

The case will most likely drag on and be forgotten or settled out of court. Sometimes the reporter or his editor, tired of the legal rigmarole, may extend a perfunctory apology simply to be done with it. At other times, the reporter may find himself in the wrong and print a retraction or a corrigendum. But if there is no settlement, the reporter or editor may face strict penalties in the form of monetary compensation or (under IPC 499 and 500) a jail sentence of up to two years.

 Politicians have taken to filing defamation cases against each other as well. Finance minister Arun Jaitley took exception to remarks against him by Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. Former MP CM Digvijay Singh sued Union minister Uma Bharti, former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit took the BJP’s Vijendra Gupta to court, BJP MP Varun Gandhi was sued by his own uncle and political opponent, V M Singh and Bihar Deputy CM Sushil Modi filed a suit against RJD spokesperson Manoj Jha. Not to be outdone, the RSS sued Rahul Gandhi for defamation.

Even mediapersons have slapped cases against one another. Erstwhile Indian Express editor Shekhhar Gupta had sued the late Vinod Mehta for defamation, while The Times of India group had sent a legal notice to business journalist and author Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.

With so much litigious ill-will, one can’t but wish that the Supreme Court had recognized defamation as a civil, rather than criminal, liability. However, the apex court dismissed BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy’s petition to decriminalize defamation last year, citing the ‘right to reputation’ under article 21. Swamy’s plea had been supported by Gandhi, Kejirwal and various media organizations and had come in the wake of fears that the Defamation Suit might compromise freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution.

Admittedly, it is all too easy to use defamation law to bully and silence journalists and activists. Big Business, after all, can deploy far more legal firepower than a small media outfit and outspend it many times over. A recent example of a corporate suing a publication is that of the Essar Group, which took exception to an article in The Caravan on the business house’s attempts to “manage” mediapersons and politicians through gifts and other incentives. An earlier case was that of the Crop Care Foundation of India against Rajasthan Patrika.

While it is incumbent on journalists to exercize the greatest discretion and diligence before targeting a public figure, they certainly cannot treat them as holy cows, for fear of being sued.

The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

  • d.k.nagar

    Totally misguided article.Any one can play with reputation of any one,defame,but the grieved person cannot do anything? Absurd thinking.How Such person with a vehemently biased approach towards his profession but not maintaining the sacrosanct be supported.Advocating yellow journalism is a heinous crime.The foul mouth media, politicians or any individual should be held accountable in the same manner as any govt servant or law breaker.