As the resident editor of a major daily, this writer has had his share of defamation suits. Here is a personal account of the time and energy wasted over frivolous suits aimed at muzzling the press
By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh
For over 17 years, I had been bearing the cross with my name marked by an asterisk on the back page of the newspaper editions I edited. The symbol was a pointer to the declaration that I was responsible for the selection of stories under the Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act.
This was also aimed at absolving the editor-in-chief, the managing editor, the executive editor, the printer, publisher and all and sundry from the fangs of defamation laws of the country. And I have had a fair share of brushes with the law.
After signing scores of vakalatnamas, paying innumerable visits to various court premises, spending hours waiting for a call from the peon outside the court rooms, standing still before the magistrates and judges as the counsels argued the cases and getting to sign haajri, I have come out unscathed. Either the cases were dismissed after years of hearings or were withdrawn by the alleged victims of defamation due to sheer exhaustion.
The cases dragged on as the advocates employed tactics to deliberately delay the hearings to let the hearings go on for years together. Besides, there were all those adjournments because either the magistrate would go on sudden unannounced leave or there would be a strike by lawyers or the counsel of either side would fall ill or would be busy in some other court. On all such occasions, we would just sign in our presence and get another tareekh.
It is also true that most of the cases had little leg to stand on and it was obvious from the very beginning that these cannot pass muster. Other than the cases which ended up in the courts, there were at least five times the number of legal notices for defamation that were received for the person responsible under the PRB Act. I shall come to that in a moment.
In almost all the cases that were slapped on me, which included both civil and criminal defamation and in many cases both, there was little evidence that I or the newspaper could have had any vested interest. In most cases the newspaper would have been happy to make amends to settle the issue.
One such case pertained to a woman from Hoshiarpur in Punjab. The Indian Express had run a series on the scandal involving allotment of petrol pumps in the country. While referring to one of the allottees, our reporter mentioned that she was married and related to an influential person. The allotment to her was cancelled among that of several others. After several months, we received a court summon as she had filed a defamation case for describing her as a married woman. She maintained that she was unmarried and she sought damages as no one was ready to marry her citing our story! Not just that, she also filed a complaint with the SC/ST Commission, which marked it to the state vigilance department which, in turn, summoned me for questioning.
The case went on for several years till we heard that she had stopped coming for the hearings and the case had been dismissed.
Interestingly, I also had the “honor” of receiving legal notices from a couple of bureaucrats. The local deputy commissioner once sent us a notice that we were trying to create public disorder by publishing false news about him. The notice was on behalf of the office of the deputy commissioner and not by the officer in his personal capacity. However, it was not taken any further after their seniors were apprised of the notices.
Now coming to the legal notices received by us. The incidence of receiving such notices was at least five times the number of cases finally pursued against us. This was something which our legal team took very seriously and it made it a point to give a detailed reply, evidently to avoid taking the case to the courts.
However, over the years I realized that this ploy was often used to muzzle the media and prevent follow-ups or similar reports appearing in other newspapers. Many of those who sent legal notices also mailed copies to the other editors warning of legal action if they wrote anything about it. This effectively ensured that the story got buried in a deep freeze. Legal departments of newspapers would get extra cautious and even journalists would like to avoid getting into any trouble. This was by far an effective tool to prevent the exposure of scandals.
There are still a couple of cases pending in the courts. One of these involves a senior IPS officer, now retired, who had named nearly 60 editors and reporters as respondents in a defamation case. Though the case was filed about six years ago, nearly half of the respondents have so far not been served the notices.
With the Supreme Court hearing a bunch of petitions challenging Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC (which criminalizes defamatory speech) filed by politicians, some hope is in sight that defamation is at least decriminalized. It is essential that such fetters are removed if free speech is to remain meaningful. Reason-able restrictions are already in place under other existing laws and the provision of exemplary costs under civil proceedings should be sufficient to deter defamation.
The writer served as resident editor of The Indian Express in Chandigarh