Dissecting MJ Akbar’s Defamation Complaint Against Priya Ramani
What does the defamation case by MJ Akbar against Priya Ramani say? What issues will the court have to consider?
A day after finally breaking his silence on the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against him, MJ Akbar has now filed a complaint against Priya Ramani, the first woman to publicly call him out, for criminal defamation under Section 500 of the IPC.
The 41-page complaint was filed at the Patiala House District Court on his behalf by the law firm Karanjawala & Co, and argues that Ramani “willfully, deliberately, intentionally and maliciously” defamed Akbar on “wholly and completely false, frivolous, unjustifiable and scandalous grounds”.
It goes on to say that Ramani’s articles and tweets, and the subsequent articles in India and abroad, have harmed the “goodwill and reputation” of Akbar, “within the political fraternity, media, friends, family, colleagues and in society at large.”
Ramani has responded with a statement of her own, terming the defamation case an attempt by Akbar to silence the women who have made serious allegations against him “through intimidation and harassment”, and vowed to fight the defamation case.
“Needless to say, I am ready to fight allegations of defamation laid against me, as truth and the absolute truth is my only defence.”Priya Ramani in her statement on Twitter
Here’s what the complaint says, and what the key legal issues that the case will need to address are.
Details of the Complaint
Criminal defamation is defined in Section 499 of the IPC as making or publishing an imputation about a person which is intended to harm the reputation of that person (or which the person making it knows or believes will harm the person’s reputation).
The complaint first sets out the details of Akbar’s career, including his current status as a politician, his time as an eminent journalist, and as an author of several books. This is done to establish his reputation in public life, which will be important to establishing that his reputation has been harmed.
It then lists the articles and tweets that allegedly defame Akbar. These include Ramani’s October 2017 article in Vogue India (in which she didn’t actually name Akbar, addressing a “Male Boss” instead), tweets by her which identify Akbar as the subject of her piece and note the other women who have come forward to expose him as a “sexual predator” and articles in the Washington Post, Mint and Firstpost which repeat her allegations against Akbar.
The complaint then focuses on one of Ramani’s own tweets, in which she had said that she didn’t name Akbar in the Vogue article “because he didn’t ‘do’ anything.” This is used to say that Ramani has herself admitted that Akbar never did anything to her, thereby demonstrating that she has “intentionally put forward malicious, fabricated and salacious imputations” to harm his reputation.
Akbar’s complaint goes on to argue that the Ramani’s false narrative is being circulated in a motivated manner to fulfill an agenda, though he does not clarify what this is.
Next, the complaint tries to establish the harm caused to Akbar’s reputation by Ramani, noting the effect on his personal reputation among friends, family and colleagues, as well as in the eyes of the public and the political fraternity. It tries to back this up on the basis that Akbar has received numerous calls from friends and colleagues from the media and politics.
Akbar’s complaint also includes a list of witnesses, whose testimony he intends to use as evidence to prove his case. These include Joyeeta Basu (Editor of the Sunday Guardian), Veenu Sandal (the Asian Age tarot reader mentioned in Ghazala Wahab’s account of harassment by Akbar), and author Sunil Gujral.
The Legal Issues
Ramani has indicated that she will be arguing that what she’s said is true, and therefore not defamatory. In criminal defamation cases, truth is a defence, if the public good requires the statement or imputation to be made. Given Akbar’s status as a Minister of State and his standing in the journalism community, bringing these allegations to light would certainly satisfy the test of public good.
Ramani’s statements about Akbar include her personal experience of how he conducted her interview and the way in which he has allegedly treated other young women (in the Vogue article) and her reference to him as a predator in her tweets (including the one listing all the women who have come forward). She can claim that these statements were not defamatory on two grounds: truth and the expression of an opinion in good faith.
Her statement about how he conducted her interview needs no further evidence beyond her own testimony, and the women who have come forward against Akbar are also likely to stand by their accounts, even in court if necessary.
One area which may prove controversial is with regard to the lines Ramani claims Akbar would use on new women at the office every year. These are in quotation marks, and so unless these were used against her (which doesn’t appear to be the case), she may need to get some of those women to whom these were said to testify that Akbar had said them.
At the same time, there is a legal argument to say that there is nothing wrong with her referencing comments she has heard from other people, as long as she did not know these to be false, or recklessly reproduced them without a care for the truth.
With regard to her statements that he is a predator, she would not be required to show that Akbar had committed a crime or committed sexual harassment at the workplace (though it is likely that Akbar may try to argue this regarding incidents before the Vishaka judgment in 1997). In light of what she knew of his conduct and the testimonies of others, she should be able to rely on the exception to defamation of expressing an opinion in good faith “respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his character”.
It should be noted that Akbar has not denied any of the allegations made by Ramani per se, whether in her article in Vogue, or with reference to the claims of other women. The only way in which he has tried to indicate that her allegations are false is by saying that she herself has admitted that he didn’t “do” anything to her.
The value of relying on this argument is dubious since Ramani clearly uses the word ‘do’ in double quotes and it appears reasonably clear from her tweet that she is talking about the problematic way in which sexual harassment is viewed, rather than admitting (in legal terms) that Akbar didn’t actually do anything to her.
Although Akbar has not filed the complaint against the other women who have made allegations against him, the fact that he has taken issue with tweets referencing them could mean that even they can take the stand to indicate Ramani was speaking the truth and that her statements were in good faith.
What Happens Now?
The Patiala House District Court will now decide whether or not to take cognisance of the complaint. This will need to factor in whether or not it has jurisdiction (which the judge will probably agree to), as well as whether or not the complaint prima facie discloses a criminal offence. To conduct this assessment, it can examine the complainant and any witnesses it feels necessary.
If the court believes there is a prima facie case, then it can issue process to begin legal proceedings. Alternatively, it can dismiss the complaint, or order a further investigation before making a decision.
Akbar has approached the court armed with a big law firm in Karanjawala & Co – though it should be noted that the comments regarding him hiring 97 lawyers on social media are an exaggeration (the names of the entire firm are only listed on the vakalatnama at the end of the complaint for convenience, not because they will all necessarily be representing Akbar).
For Ramani, social media is already awash with offers to crowdfund her defence, and several high-profile lawyers have expressed a willingness to help prepare her defence. These include renowned women lawyers like India Jaising, Rebecca John and Vrinda Grover, who have publicly expressed their support for her.
If the court decides to take cognizance of the complaint, the trial will proceed with arguments likely to revolve around the issues discussed above. While the proceedings are ongoing, we are also likely to see attempts by Akbar to have reporting on the allegations against him to be injuncted.
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