In India, defamation laws, especially criminal defamation laws have been more abused than used. It is a surprise that these laws, made more than 150 years ago, still exist. 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 the truth and come clean.
That anyone even remotely connected can seek out any of the thousands of lower courts anywhere in the country to mount an enormous challenge against the free media is dangerous for our democracy. I have seen the abuse and suffered the consequences. However, this isn't personal as many times, the nation suffered more. I have been sued possibly 100 times in various courts in India, and these are my general observations:
- Most get settled with a clarification. They file the case, announce 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 fully 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 PR, the 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 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 now, but BCCI was blind then. They now accept our story.
- In one case, a proclaimed henchman of a Goonda minister filed a case in interior 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, the cases were filed by an agent selling the Ponzi scheme in interior Bihar. The corporate office of both of us was in Mumbai.
- Whenever 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 West Bengal or the North East of India. 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 silencing any further follow-up investigation in the matter.
- Many cases have been filed by parties who are not connected nor suffered any damage. They are would-be employees, agents etc. who undertake the task on behalf of the main parties.
It is time India looks at its 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 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.
Note: I am a signatory to the #freespeech bill being proposed by a Member of Parliament as a private members bill.
A version of this piece first appeared on Facebook.