Defamation and the Media

Meghnad S.

Now that we are past the initial glitches of figuring out what defamation means or fails to mean (anything) perhaps, let’s talk about what it does. A glaring example of the use and misuse of this law is in the way media houses are embroiled in several defamation cases. 

Let’s talk about how it plays out a lot of times. Well, consider this -  that the Times of Neverland publishes news about a renowned actress Maliya Mutt. They report that she has black money stowed away in banks in Swaverland. She is not an honest, tax-paying citizen of the democracy of Neverland. Ms. Mutt gets upset at this allegation; she has a huge fan-following of people who watch her Stolenwood movies. She cannot afford to lose her fans to some statement made in the newspaper. She needs to react and show to everyone that the statement isn’t true, or else her image will be forever tarnished. Voila! The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (again, IPC for ease of reference) comes to her rescue with the boon of Sections 501 and 502! She files a defamation case against the newspaper.

Wondering how this happened now? The newspaper carries reports written by individual reporters, how can the publishing house as a whole be held liable? The answer lies in Section 501 of the IPC. It tells us that if the publisher or printer knew or could have had reason to believe that the content being printed is defamatory, they’re liable to be prosecuted.

Oh and guess what – even multi-crore maan-haani may strike again. Ms. Mutt could also choose to slap a suit for compensation against Times of Neverland. A few crores paid here and there to compensate for defamation and Times of Neverland turns Times of Never-Everland.

An exaggerated result of the Mutts of Neverland acting together and against all newspapers, and other print media houses - one of the pillars of a democracy, media may be wiped out. What does it mean for you? Two scenarios may play out:

  1. Times of Neverland and other newspapers in the so-called democracy of Neverland start to get wary when reporting on people. After all, economic sense would force publishers to play it safe. Result = Chill free speech.

  2. Times of Neverland and other newspapers continue to report on public figures and their deeds based on the information they receive. However, Mutts of Neverland cannot bear it, there continue to be frivolous complaints against publishers and endless harassment. What happens?  Few publishing houses survive the financial burden of defending cases and the harassment of the process. Result = Chill free speech.

No free speech = no unbiased news = ill-informed masses such and you and I, often fed propaganda as news.

Now you may wonder whether this implies that Times of Neverland and the likes should be allowed to publish with impunity, disregarding factual correctness? The answer is NO. Responsible journalism is a must but the trick lies in balancing rights v. restrictions. A law should not be characterised by its abuse – it shouldn’t merely create opportunities for harassment. A law must create real remedies to real harm.

In light of this, a possible parallel solution:

Ms. Maliya Mutt issues a notice to Times of Neverland and seeks an apology/explanation and or retraction of the statement if the statement is untrue. Times of Neverland complies to such a request – they agree to publish an article apologising for the misreporting.  Now there may be two scenrios:

  1. Ms. Maliya is happy and satisfied with the ‘peace offering.’ Times of Neverland posts an article apologizing to Maliya and her fans once again see her as the honest Stolenwood star that she is. Times of Neverland is held accountable for their mistake and perhaps act more responsibly and guess what – everything goes back to normal. No harm done.

  2. Ms. Maliya isn’t satisfied with Times of Neverland’s explanation, she must take this to Court and be well compensated. Fair. She files a civil suit and asks for compensation based on a rational assessment of the harm suffered by her due to the attack on her image. The amount sought in compensation isn’t allowed to cross a limit of say INR 1 crore to ensure that it’s not unnecessarily arduous. Depending upon the outcome of the case, Times of Neverland pays or doesn’t. An expensive hit to Times of Neverland but nevertheless, it survives, only perhaps to Never-Ever report carelessly again.

Worth considering right?

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