In India, defamation laws, especially the criminal defamation laws, have been more abused than used. It is a surprise that these laws, made more than 150 years ago, still exist in a free world. It is even more surprising that a nation burdened with serious issues in justice delivery even entertains such cases when the priority should be to the contrary.
Defamation laws are used to threaten, bully and silence free speech and promote censorship so as to enable the criminal activities of a few. Very few cases have been filed with an intent to pursue truth and come clean. Anyone, with even the most remote connections, can seek out any of the thousands of lower courts in the country to mount an enormous challenge against free media. This possibility is dangerous to our democracy.
I have seen the abuse and suffered the consequences. However, this isn't a merely personal grouse, as many times the nation has suffered far more. I have been sued possibly 100 times in various courts in India while I was employed with a news magazine and these are my general observations on this matter.
- Most defamation cases get settled with a clarification. The complainants file the case, announce it to the world, while actively pursuing for a clarification, so that they can withdraw the case. They simply don't want to fight the case to its logical end.
- There was one case that was filed in Kolkata, which was settled with a promise that we will never re-publish the same article again. The petitioners knew full well that no publication prints any article twice. The case was a farce and so was the settlement. The person who filed the case is a member of parliament now. Actively aided by public relations, media went to town about the case being filed, but the quiet withdrawal was never reported.
- In one case, the Board of Control for Cricket In India (BCCI) filed a case of defamation against us for sensationalising the match fixing story with an intent to increase circulation. It was the first time someone talked about match fixing in cricket. We all know the truth, but BCCI was blind then. They now accept our story.
- Most politicians would file cases at the drop of a hat to silence the opposition. They have a political constituency to protect. The cases never reach any conclusion but the harassment of journalists continue.
- In one case, a proclaimed henchman of a goonda minister filed a case in the interior of Uttar Pradesh. We were informed by our local lawyer that we would be physically abused once we set foot in the local court. We moved the high court and got the case transferred to a different court. They never pursued the case after the transfer.
- When we did a story against a Ponzi scheme, cases were filed by an agent selling the Ponzi scheme in the interiors of Bihar. Both our corporate offices were in Mumbai.
- Every time, when anything about sex is written, we would expect a plethora of cases across the country about how a family magazine has 'offended their sensibilities'. These are normally criminal cases that never see the light of the day, but we still have to fight them.
- Most cases had a sinister way of being filed in courts in small towns in Kolkata or the Northeast. The idea is to drag the respondent to remote corners with inefficient judicial delays and harass them. In many cases, it is all about getting a quick injunction and silence any further follow-up investigation of the matter.
- Many cases have been filed by parties who are not connected nor have suffered any damage. They would be employees, agents and so on, who undertake the task on behalf of the main parties.
It is time India looks at the criminal defamation laws closely. Protection of national interests needs a free-speaking media. The constant threat of abuse of criminal defamation laws only to silence the truth being spoken out is entirely out of place for a vibrant democracy.
The fact that most cases are filed by the rich and powerful against the free and open media tells its own story. The fact that not one case was decided against us proves the case for free speech. It is time India wakes up. This is the time for pushing greater transparency and accountability. This is time to strengthen our democratic institutions. This is the time to decriminalise defamation laws.
I am a signatory to the #FreeSpeech bill being proposed by a few members of parliament. If you agree with me, please support the drafting of the bill and push it to be made into a law. Your support will strengthen the case against criminal defamation laws in the country.
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