Delhi HC Vacates Gag Order Against 'The Caravan' on 2011 Cover Story on Arindam Chaudhuri

The court order a "major success" for those who believe in "good, bold journalism", the magazine has said.

Arindam Chaudhuri. Source: YouTube Screengrab

Arindam Chaudhuri. Source: YouTube Screengrab

New Delhi: The Delhi high court has vacated a gag order against The Caravan magazine in a Rs 50-crore civil defamation suit filed by Arindam Chaudhuri, founder of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), against an article published in 2011.

Terming the order passed by Justice Manmohan on February 16 as “a major victory towards upholding freedom of press”, The Caravan said in a statement that it was publishing the article again on Thursday after seven years.

Chaudhari had filed the case after the magazine published an article titled ‘Sweet smell of success – How Arindam Chaudhuri made a fortune of the aspirations and insecurities of India’s middle classes‘, by the magazine’s contributing editor and novelist Siddharth Deb.

Following the article’s publication, Chaudhuri had filed a case against the magazine in a civil court 2,200 km away in Silchar, Assam, which granted him a preliminary injunction, directing the magazine to remove the article in question from its website, according to Bar and Bench.

Thereafter, a transfer petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the magazine praying that the case be shifted to the Delhi high court, which was granted.

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Bar and Bench reported that appearing for Chaudhari in the Delhi high court, advocate Nishit Kush contended that the magazine carried a morphed image of Chaudhari, showing him as a magician/soothsayer with the intent to portray him as a trickster, adding that “derogatory comments were made against him without any basis and with an intent to create a negative image of Chaudhari amongst the general public”.

The Caravan’s advocate Amit Gupta invoked the defence of truthfulness and submitted that none of the impugned statements were made recklessly or without proper research.

According to Bar and Bench, “after hearing the parties, Justice Manmohan cited the judgment delivered in the case of Shashi Tharoor v. Arnab Goswami which delved into reasonable restrictions on freedom of the press in defamation suits, and observed that,

“In India the Courts have the power to pass pre-publication or pre-broadcasting injunction or prior restraint order in sub judice matters provided the two pronged test of necessity and proportionality are satisfied and reasonable alternative methods or measures are not sufficient to prevent the said risk.”

Vacating the injunction, the court observed that if the article in question is read as a whole, it is prima facie found that the impugned portions are either based on the statements made by several persons or on facts available in public domain and/or are the author’s personal opinions and conclusions based on extensive research and report.

In a statement, The Caravan said IIPM had previously filed similar lawsuits against other publishers, also from civil courts in small towns of Assam rather than in Delhi, “wherein it managed to obtain ex-parte interim injunctions against publications who attempted to question many of the claims made by the institute in its advertisements and brochures.”

It said, apart from the Deb, The Caravan’s editors and its publishers, the suit also “impleaded Penguin (the publisher of a book by Deb in which the article was meant to be a chapter), and Google India (which, the suit alleged, had been “publishing, distributing, giving coverage, circulating, blogging the defamatory, libellous and slanderous articles”).

The court also held that prima facie, IIPM has failed to show that the story has been published with a reckless disregard for truth or precipitated by actual malice, or that “the defence of justification/truthfulness/fair comment is one that cannot succeed.”

“Following the court’s decision, which was made available on 21 February 2018—for the first time in nearly seven years—The Caravan has now re-published the original article on its website,” the statement read.

It said, “It is our belief at The Caravan that we must defend the right of journalists to report on any subjects or persons without undue fear of legal intimidation from powerful entities or organisations that seek to insulate themselves from criticism.”

The court order has been welcomed by news organisations and journalists, including The Wire, whose editors have criticised the use of defamation cases by politicians and businesses seeking to intimidate the media. Just last month, the government’s Unique Identification Authority of India had filed an FIR naming The Tribune newspaper and its reporter, Rachna Khaira, for an investigative report that exposed loopholes in the issuance of Aadhaar cards and the security of data.

According to Reporters Without Borders, India in 2017 was ranked 136 – compared to 133 in 2016 – in the World Press Freedom Index.“We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies. They began falling in the index in preceding years and now, more than ever, nothing seems to be checking that fall”, the organisation says, citing the main cause in India as the “rise of Hindu nationalism”.

“With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” the report said.

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