Freedom of Expression

Defamation Should Be Treated as Civil Offence: Editor’s Guild

The organisation’s plea comes at a time when The Wire is facing both civil and criminal defamation suits by BJP president Amit Shah’s son, Jay Shah.

Representative image. Credit: Ahdieh Ashrafi/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

New Delhi: A day after a court in Ahmedabad admitted a criminal defamation case filed by BJP president Amit Shah’s son against The Wire, the Editors Guild of India (EGI) criticised the increasing use of criminal defamation lawsuits to threaten journalists and appealed to the Supreme Court to review its decision which upheld the criminality of defamation in a recent judgment.

The organisation’s plea, in the form of a statement on Thursday, comes at a time when shah’s son, Jay Shah, has also filed a Rs 100 crore civil defamation case against The Wire  for reporting a story about his business affairs.

“The EGI expresses deep disquiet over the continued misuse of the law that treats defamation as a criminal offence. The Guild is concerned that this provision in the Indian Penal Code is being employed by many litigants to intimidate journalists writing on matters of public interest and as a coercive tool to dissuade and even threaten the media from carrying out its legitimate responsibilities,” the statement signed by the EGI president Raj Chengappa, general secretary Prakash Dubey, and treasurer Kalyani Shankar said.

Differentiating between civil and criminal defamation suits, the statement further added, “The Guild recognises the right of an aggrieved individual to approach a court of law to seek relief against defamation. But the Guild maintains that defamation should be treated as a civil offence and respectfully disagrees with the Supreme Court’s recent judgment upholding the criminality of defamation.”

“The Guild appeals to the country’s highest court of justice to review its decision so as to prevent the continued misuse of such a tyrannical provision of law. It also requests both the Central and State Governments to have the law suitably amended to decriminalise defamation,” it said.

In recent times, the use of criminal defamation has drawn widespread criticism from jurists, lawyers, journalists and many other civil society activists, especially at a time when powerful people or organisations are increasingly invoking what is considered worldwide to be an anachronistic law to stifle and silence the press.

At a Press Club of India meeting, organised in support of The Wire and to protest against the government’s defence of Jay Shah, whose lawyers have called him a ‘private citizen’, senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Karuna Nundy also condemned the growing misuse of criminal defamation.

Describing his experiences of having fought such defamation cases in the past, Guha-Thakurta said, “I think never before in the 40 years that I have been a journalist have I seen defamation suits being used in the manner that they are being today – to stifle the voices of dissent. India is one of the few counties in the world where defamation is both a civil and criminal offence. The UK used to be known as the defamation capital of the world but even there the laws have changed.”

Nundy, on the other hand, said that criminality of defamation emerged in England long back to prevent “duelling” between aristocracies, who used the law to protect their “honour”. But she added that it was no more needed in today’s world as it is mostly misused as a measure of threat and intimidation.