Business Standard

Need to decriminalise defamation, say experts


New Delhi, Sep 9 IANS) While Britain has amended its laws to decriminalise defamation, in India the issue is still being debated with journalists often being harassed on the basis of libel, said experts here Monday.

According to journalist Aniruddha Bahal of online magazine, defamation laws in India were used to harass journalists with cases slapped on them in courts in far off places in the country where they were forced to appear in person.

According to the law, a journalist or editor faced with a defamation case had to appear in person in court to give his or her defence.

"The court notices are issued from distant places and the journalist has to be present everywhere," he said at a panel talk on 'Decriminalising Defamation: Global Perspectives on Punishments for Speech' held at the Press Club of India here.

Bahal said framing of charges can take from five to six years. "All this is used as a means to harass people," said Bahal, who was involved in a sting exposing bribe-taking politicians.

Peter Noorlander, CEO of Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), London, said Britain had decriminalised libel two years ago.

Earlier, London was known as the libel capital as it was very easy to slap libel cases. Powerful business houses from other countries would bring libel cases on websites, which were allowed to proceed in British courts.

Even scientists and artists were getting sued, he said. "The ability of companies to sue on libel was unlimited...and the damages were huge," he said.

With the change in libel laws, things have changed. Now you can't launch proceedings against any anybody - there has to be a British connection, he said.

The damages have also been limited, so people don't have to face bankruptcy, he said.

He said there was a need to pull libel out of the criminal sphere and put it in an appropriate civil law environment.

Nani Jansen, an attorney with MLDI, related cases around the world of journalists being punished for libel for criticising the government despite the respective country having freedom of expression as part of its constitution.

This, she said, "underlines the need for reforming of legislation...there should be more room for criticism of public individuals, or libel can be used as an instrument of political oppression", she said.

Chinmayi Arun, a research director with Centre for Communication Governance and assistant professor at the National Law University, related the case of actress Khusboo who was slapped with several cases over her comments on pre-marital sex.

She said there was a conflict between the freedom of expression and the right to reputation. While Khusboo had resources and could fight her case, a person with less resources would appear in a weak position, she added.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, president of the Foundation for Media Professionals, an independent journalist and an educator, said stories that need to be reported were not being reported due to fear of the libel law.

The discussion was organised by the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi, and Foundation for Media Professionals.

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First Published: Mon, September 09 2013. 22:16 IST