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What happened ? Journalist Priya Ramani faced the charges of defamation for defaming M.J Akbar, a former Union Minister journalist and author. Mr. Akbar’s case was rooted in the claim that he had a ‘stellar reputation’ as a highly respected journalist and an accomplished writer. The court found the testimony of Priya Ramani and another journalist who testified in favour of Priya Ramani to be credible and detailed enough to question the reputation.

Judgment of the court

Major point | Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate noted that a woman who raises a voice against sexual harassment cannot be punished for criminal defamation because the ‘right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman’. The court was receptive to the defence that Ms. Ramani’s claims were true and made for the public good.

The court took note of unequal equations of power of the harasser and the victim and said given that it may result in loss of dignity and self- confidence at the time, it underscored that

“a woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades”.

The court has acquitted Priya Ramani and preserved the space of women who have found their voice in recent times to speak out about their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. Court places it in the context of ‘the need for women to have freedom, equality, equal opportunity and social protection, if they were to excel in an atmosphere in which workforce participation is undesirably low.

Criminal defamation

Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code provides for the offence of defamation as-

“Whoever, by-

  • words either spoken or intended to be read, or

  • by signs or

  • by visible representations,

makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said to defame that person except in the cases referred under exceptions to this Section.

Exception 1 to Section 499 applies in the recent case of Priya Ramani which provides defence to the offence of criminal defamation as under-

“It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it be for the public good that the imputation should be made or published. Whether or not it is for the public good is a question of fact.”

Constitutionality of criminal defamation

A criminal prosecution that is inexpensive and quick becomes a handy tool to silence critics. The constitutionality of offence of criminal defamation was challenged in the case of Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India. The Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutionality of criminal defamation and held that it is not disproportionate restriction on free speech, because protection of reputation is a fundamental right as well as a human right.

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