A day after dismissing the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him by 14 women journalists as politically motivated with an eye on the 2019 general elections, senior journalist and Union Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar on Monday moved a criminal defamation petition against Priya Ramani, one of the first to call him out.

In October 2017, Ramani wrote in Vogue India about the inappropriate behaviour of an unnamed editor. On October 8 this year, she revealed on Twitter that the editor was, in fact, Akbar. Since then, 13 other women have taken to social media to write about the sexual harassment they allegedly faced at Akbar’s hands in various newsrooms. Akbar has been the editor of prominent newspapers like The Telegraph, Asian Age and The Sunday Guardian.

The revelations about him are part of the #MeToo movement that has swept India’s media, film, entertainment, literature, business and political spheres this month.

Criminal defamation petition

A criminal defamation petition is a tool often used to intimidate the press, given its cumbersome process. Akbar’s petition against Ramani makes two central points. One, that the allegations against him are baseless and a motivated campaign to malign his reputation. Second, given that the incident happened almost 20 years ago and no formal complaint was lodged all these years, the whole account is a malicious attempt to bring down Akbar’s social standing.

In fact, an oft-repeated claim of innocence by many of the men called out for sexual harassment and misconduct in the past 10 days has been that the incident is from many years ago. If harassment did take place, why did the woman not take action immediately, they ask.

There are several layers to the answer to this question. One, given the power equation that usually exists in cases of harassment, victims fear retribution and the consequent threat to their personal and professional lives. Also, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act came into force in 2013, which means the only avenue available to most women before this was to go to the police, which, when it involves powerful men, is a highly stressful process. The law is also bound by limitations, which means certain types of cases have to be filed within a particular period of time. For crimes that carry a maximum sentence of less than three years, such as molestation, the time limit to report a case is three years from the date of the incident. This is a flaw in the system as this time period is usually over by the time the victim has come to terms with the crime and gathered the courage to take legal measures.

This aside, Akbar’s petition assumes that if a person fails to prosecute before the statutory limitation, it becomes a certificate of innocence for the accused. This is clearly a farcical position. The victim has the right to both prosecute and not prosecute. A decision not to prosecute does not mean the victim loses the right to talk about a crime committed against her. Such a discussion by no means becomes defamation, as long as the incident is a fact. This is akin to saying that if an accused is acquitted in a criminal case as a result of the prosecution’s failure to convince the court, the victim should immediately stop talking about the case.

Conspiracy theory

Akbar’s petition also argues that the incident narrated by Ramani is a falsified account. In any defamation case, apart from the legal standard that truth is valid defence, the burden of proof is always on the complainant and it is the complainant who must establish malicious intent. It is not enough to say that something that is not wholly truthful was claimed to successfully prosecute for defamation. This is especially true for a public official like Akbar because the courts use a different standard of privacy for those in public life compared to laymen.

In the minister’s case, establishing malicious intent would be extremely difficult as it is not only Ramani who has accused him of sexual harassment but 13 other women as well. What emerges from their harrowing accounts is a pattern of behaviour. While it is possible to ascribe malicious motives to one person, it is almost impossible to accept that 14 women got together to tailor an elaborate conspiracy against Akbar. If this has to be proved, then Akbar has to show evidence of criminal conspiracy, that all 14 women got together with malicious intent to tarnish his image through a conspiracy that played out on social media.

Akbar has taken on Ramani as his first target, possibly because he feels that her tweet – in which she said she did not name him in the 2017 article because “he did not ‘do’ anything” – makes it a weak case. But taken together with the testimonies of the 13 other women, some of whom are likely to be witnesses in Ramani’s defence, Akbar’s attempt to intimidate through criminal defamation proceedings may not succeed. At best, the petition looks like a ploy to stop the press from reporting on the harassment claims and ensure more women do not come out against him.