Defamation verdict bites Times Now
While there is a case for decriminalizing defamation and codifying the civil law relating to it, it is imperative to strike the right balance between ensuring freedom of speech and offering sufficient, meaningful protection to the likely victims of defamation,
says HARIHARAN V S
Tuesday, Oct 04 13:16:06, 2011
In September 2008, while reporting a provident fund scam Times Now had, by mistake, displayed Justice P B Sawant’s image for 15 seconds. The report alleged that several judges were involved in the scam. Justice Sawant promptly sent a legal notice. Times Now’s expression of regret for 5 days in the scroll news apparently did not satisfy Justice Sawant who took the matter to court. Last week the Pune District Court found Times Now guilty and ordered it to pay Rs. 100 cr! When Times Now appealed against the decision in the Bombay High Court, last week it was ordered to deposit Rs. 20 cr and furnish bank guarantee for the balance.
Defamation cases against media are nothing new. In fact it is an occupational hazard. What the Bombay High Court direction has done is to simply revive media’s oft-repeated criticism of the defamation laws. Criminal provisions relating to defamation, the haste with which lower courts order remedies to the plaintiff and the unreasonable damages awarded by Courts are some of its major concerns.
In India, defamation is an offence punishable under section 500 of the IPC with imprisonment for a period of 2 years and/ or fine. While in many countries defamation is just a civil matter, India still retains the criminal provisions. Unless the defendant, who in many cases happens to be a journalist, is able to prove that his actions fall under one of the 10 exceptions provided in Section 499 of IPC, he goes behind the bars. Jayalalithaa government’s intolerance to adverse media reports resulted in widespread misuse of these criminal provisions in 2003-04.
Sec 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 makes defamation though internet and other electronic means punishable with 3 years’ imprisonment and/ or fine. It is this section which is used against bloggers. Recently Digvijay Singh lodged a complaint against bloggers/ websites under this section.
Ironically while Sec 500 of IPC is criticized as an archaic, draconian and a legacy of British Raj for treating defamation as a criminal offence, even the IT Act enacted by the Indian Government in 2000 provides for similar, in fact worse jail sentence! Another irony is that while the main stream media demands deletion of Sec 499-502 of IPC, it does not mind using the IT Act to sue bloggers. For example when Chyetanya Kunte, a blogger criticized NDTV’s coverage of 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai as shoddy journalism little did he expect a defamation notice from Barkha Dutt.
Reverting to the media’s grouse on defamation laws, earlier this year IIPM succeeded in getting an injunction against Caravan directing it to remove an article against it. Caravan is published from Delhi and the injunction was obtained from the distant Silchar Civil Court, Assam! Further it was an ex-parte injunction. In 2010 the same IIPM sued Rashmi Bansal, a blogger for defamation in the same Silchar Civil Court. While Caravan was able to get a stay on the Silchar court verdict, Rashmi had to settle for removing the article from her site. It is this unseemly haste of some lower courts in granting remedies which has been a major cause of concern to media.
The third objection relates to the obviously unreasonable damages sanctioned by courts. Pune Civil Court’s verdict against Times Now is seen in some quarters as one such case. The cost of appealing against the decision is also proving to be high for Times Now.
While there is a case for decriminalizing defamation and codifying the civil law relating to it, it is imperative to strike a right balance between ensuring freedom of speech to media and offering sufficient, meaningful protection to the likely victims of defamation. Otherwise it could result in miscarriage of justice to the victim.
In 2007 Live India channel conducted a sting operation against Uma Khurana, a school teacher in Delhi and alleged that she forced her students into prostitution. The sting operation turned out to be a fake. She had to take the channel to court. The channel was banned temporarily. The case was settled out of court within a year. Pure civil action sans recourse to Indian Penal Code may not, perhaps have forced the Channel to agree for such an early out of court settlement.
Also while media unequivocally condemns defamation cases being foisted against it, it would like to retain the right to sue others. The Hindu, for example argued in 2004 when it faced a deluge of defamation cases from the Tamilnadu government that the defamation law violated the freedom of speech guaranteed by Article 19 and as such was ultra vires the Constitution. But when Archana Shukla broke the story of Hindu’s Board Room battles in March, 2010, N Ram, the erstwhile champion of freedom of speech did not have any qualms in slapping a defamation notice on her and the Indian Express!
It appears that media, at least some prominent personalities of media would like to view defamation differently when it is their right. Needless to say that media has to be able to get over this obvious inconsistency in its thinking.
Finally softening of the defamation laws will place huge moral responsibility on the media. Media would be required to exercise due restraint in its reporting. In the 24x7 news coverage where intrusive coverage secures the Channel a place ahead of competition, if media loses the restraint, it will be a serious disservice to the freedom guaranteed by Article 19.
Hariharan VS is a finance professional who blogs on media and politics at valadyviews.blogspot.com