A lawyer’s network to defend journalists; and decriminalising defamation

Author: Nikhil Kanekal

The recent week has been a busy one for us at CCG, thanks to a visit from  Peter Noorlander and Nani Jansen from Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI).  We are grateful to all those who joined hands with us in our efforts. In case you were not around or unaware, here’s what we have been up to:

  1. A workshop to create a network of lawyers to defend journalists facing charges under restrictions to free speech in India
  2. A public discussion on decriminalising defamation; evolving our laws with the advancement of society and technology

Both events were very productive and we promise to follow through with our efforts in these regards. We’d like to offer a recap of the events through some of the press we received. The Hindu carried an article on Saturday’s workshop, which narrates the issues faced by journalists, while also taking stock of how the contours of free speech have become tighter in the last three decades.

Jawahar Raja, a lawyer in Delhi agrees. “Look at the pattern. Somebody is offended; there is a furore; the police take action; someone is arrested; then the person, after a battle, is granted bail; and the case peters out of consciousness. In many instances, the case is dropped or there is an acquittal. But the process itself is a punishment. The trial is a punishment. The prosecution knows keeping you in jail pending bail is the punishment.”

He is right. Journalists at the forefront of the battle for free speech, fighting cases, pay a high price – literally and figuratively. They have to hire legal help; they have to appear before courts regularly; they have to navigate legal processes at a time when many of their organisations wash their hands off the case; they face regular intimidation; they spend years in prison as under-trials, which is what makes getting bail so crucial to at least providing temporary relief.

Monday’s discussion on decriminalising defamation included Peter Noorlander and Nani Jansen from MLDI, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta from the Foundation of Media Professionals and CCG’s Chinmayi Arun as panelists. The Business Standard carried a news story on the event.

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.

Read the full articles here

The Hindu: Negotiated freedom

Business Standard: Need to decriminalise defamation, say experts