Monday, 30th October 2017

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Go south for capital of defamation suits

On the last day of the Assembly session in October, Tamil Nadu Speaker P. Dhanapal noted that chief minister Jayalalithaa had made 182 statements under Rule 110 to announce new projects and policies.

By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai
  • Published 14.12.15

Chennai, Dec. 13: On the last day of the Assembly session in October, Tamil Nadu Speaker P. Dhanapal noted that chief minister Jayalalithaa had made 182 statements under Rule 110 to announce new projects and policies.

What he did not record was that the Jayalalithaa government also filed 190 criminal defamation cases against publications and political rivals - possibly the highest by any state in the country.

So much so that the Supreme Court, while granting a stay in a batch of defamation cases against DMDK leader Vijayakanth, had wondered recently why so many were being filed in the state.

"We find that most of these defamation cases are coming from Tamil Nadu. These criticisms are with reference to the conceptual governance of the state and not individualistic. Why should the state file a case for individuals? Defamation case is not meant for this. We will stay the proceedings. You file your reply," the apex court told Tamil Nadu's standing counsel Yogesh Khanna on November 30.

The cases were filed against Vijayakanth for his speech at a public meeting in Dharmapuri criticising the state government. The bench of Justices Dipak Misra and P.C. Pant briefly heard his counsel G.S. Mani who read out the purported defamatory statements. Justice Misra, heading then bench, said "it was only a fair criticism".

K. Balu, a senior advocate defending PMK bosses S. Ramadoss and Anbumani Ramadoss in defamation cases, seized on the top court's query on why the state should file a case for individuals.

"That is exactly what we are demanding Jayalalithaa to do - file defamation cases in her individual capacity and not through a public prosecutor appointed by her government whose only job is to file these cases. Why use government resources if she feels she has been defamed personally?" he asked.

Balu argued that one reason could be to avoid personal appearance in court for cross-examination.

M.L. Jagan, the public prosecutor who has filed the cases on behalf of Jayalalithaa, denied this. While admitting that only those cited as witnesses in the original petition will be called, he said: "However, if the judge decides the chief minister has to appear, he can call her."

Almost all Opposition leaders - M. Karunanidhi, M.K. Stalin, Vijayakanth, his wife Premalatha, Subramanian Swamy and CPM state secretary G. Ramakrishnan - are facing defamation cases.

On the flip side, the Jayalalithaa government withdrew 26 defamation cases against MDMK leader Nanjil Sampath as soon as he defected to the AIADMK three years ago and was made one of the party's spokespersons.

Dailies have often been dragged to court for publishing statements about the chief minister by rival leaders. For instance, The Hindu was sued along with Vijayakanth because it published his statement criticising Jayalalithaa.

When Ananda Vikatan, a Tamil weekly, recently carried an appraisal of Jayalalithaa's four-year performance as chief minister, a defamation case was slapped on the magazine. DMK organ Murasoli and party chief Karunanidhi were also sued for reproducing sections of that article.

"There was nothing defamatory in that article which was just a compilation of criticism from various quarters including the courts. When a government, instead of refuting such criticism, resorts to defamation cases it only expose that it has no adequate replies," observed Thuglak editor Cho Ramaswamy, known for his pro-Jayalalithaa stand.

After three defamation cases were filed against rediff, Tehelka and Subramanian Swamy for writing about her health in July, there were no more reports discussing the chief minister's health.

"These cases are aimed at creating a chilling effect on the rest of the media," Swamy said in his petition before the apex court challenging the validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC under which the cases have been filed.

B. Thirumavelan, editor of political Tamil bi-weekly Junior Vikatan, said: "Even genuine criticism on the performance of the government or unfulfilled promises are branded as defamatory and cases filed under criminal defamation. The intent is to intimidate others from being critical rather than establish guilt. That is why none of the 20 cases against Ananda Vikatan and 18 cases against me have been prosecuted beyond the first stage, even though we have not procured a court stay in any of these cases."

Cyrus Broacha, anchor of the television spoof show The Week that Wasn't, has also had to appear before a sessions judge after Kunal Vijayakar, dressed like Jayalalithaa, had made fun of her on the show. The judge exempted the two from further personal appearances. That case, too, was not prosecuted further. #Public prosecutor Jagan denied that the cases were not being prosecuted. "Where they have not got a stay from the high court or Supreme Court, the accused are seeking adjournments citing various reasons. They are not appearing before the court and once they appear we will take it to the next stage," he said.

Jagan also justified the large number of defamation cases. "If there are so many defamatory articles and speeches against her, there will be cases," he said. "During the last DMK government, 52 defamation cases were filed on behalf of the chief minister by the prosecutor. We are following the same method," he added.

In Jayalalithaa's first term from 1991 to 1996, she had filed 120 defamation cases but withdrew them before her term ended.

In Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee government is not known for filing defamation cases. But individual Trinamul leaders have filed several such cases against rivals.

Soon after Trinamul came to power in 2011, party MP Mukul Roy had filed two defamation suits against CPM leader Gautam Deb over Deb's allegation that Roy had used Saradha funds to distribute money to Trinamul candidates for the 2011 Assembly elections.

Mamata's nephew and Trinamul MP Abhishek Banerjee also filed a case against Deb for alleging that Abhishek was involved in the Saradha scam. He filed another case against Left Front chairman Biman Bose for alleging that some people involved in the TET question paper leak were linked to him.

Senior advocate and former Calcutta mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya said: "As far as I can remember, the state government, on its own, did not move any defamation case against any political leader or publication house or media. But some Trinamul leaders individually moved such cases against CPM leaders Biman Bose and Goutam Deb. All these defamation cases are lying pending in court, awaiting disposal."