‘Faced Threats, Boycott’: Journo on Landmark Defamation Verdict

Journalist Sandhya Ravishankar on Winning 6-Yr Long Fight Against Defamation Suit

Updated09 May 2020, 12:22 PM IST
3 min read

Video Editor : Smitha TK

It has been six long years since journalist Sandhya Ravishankar has been fighting the harassment cases slapped against her for writing on the illegal beach sand mining in Tamil Nadu.

In a landmark judgement, the Madras High Court, on 7 May, has quashed all defamation proceedings initiated against her and her husband Prem for articles published in The Economic Times.

“This whole fight was not for nothing. This might be a personal milestone but this is a landmark judgement for journalists across the country,” she told The Quint.

Justice GR Swaminathan told in the court, “I am clearly of the view that there is no point in merely singing paeans to freedom of press, if one cannot go to its rescue when the said right is faced with a serious threat.”

“When freedom of press is at stake, higher judiciary is obliged to exercise not only its inherent power but also exert itself a bit. An unused power is a useless tinsel. There is no point in merely saying that a free press is the foundation of democracy,” he said.

The complainant had argued that the report was factually incorrect and hence had to be presented in a court of law, while accusing Sandhya of writing the article at the behest of her husband. The high court rejected the argument.

“The court cited a judgement made in the New York Times case that if the intent of that small inaccuracy is not malicious in nature it cannot construe defamation. In free debate, there is a small margin for error, the court said.”
Journalist Sandhya Ravishankar to The Quint

Sandhya was a freelance journalist at the time of writing this article back in 2015.

Based in Chennai, she is the editor of The Lede, her own independent digital journalistic start-up that focuses on stories in the five South Indian states. She has won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award in January 2018 under the Environment Category for her series of exposés on illegal beach sand mining in Tamil Nadu.

She has worked as a news reporter and producer for ten years with CNN News18, Times Now, CNBC-TV18, ET Now and Puthiya Thalaimurai (Tamil) and others. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, Al Jazeera Online as well as the Wire, Firstpost, The Economic Times, Hindustan Times and others.

‘Received Rape Threats’

Looking back at this journey, Sandhya narrates how she was bullied, harassed and trolled online. “They put my number online which led to receiving rape threats. In a slanderous way I was accused of being corrupt,” she added.

She also talked about how the sand miners had employed private investigators and even released CCTV footage of her meeting with her sources at cafeterias which compromised her loyalty with them.

“BJP’s then minister Pon Radhakrishnan and the BJP and RSS in Kanyakumari even burned effigies of us... There was legal detention of my colleagues,” she added.

‘Social Isolation’

What shocked her the most was how several journalists began believing the version of the miners than her truth and so she and her husband lost many friends.

“We have faced a lot of social isolation. There was not much support from the Tamil Nadu journalist fraternity.”
Journalist Sandhya Ravishankar to The Quint

However, she said she was extremely grateful for all the help she received from journalists in Mumbai, Delhi and even abroad, who supported her for her story, without even knowing who she was.

‘Tougher as a Freelance Journalist’

As a freelance journalist, the fight has been tougher as, “You never earn enough to handle the legal consequences of such stories.” However, she found a lawyer - Goutham S Raman - to argue for her pro bono. She says he ‘stepped in without even asking a question.’

When asked if it is time for her to finally relax, she laughed saying, “My family and I are in a brief interlude of peace. But the minute I started writing a story this is going to begin (again.)“

She urged all journalists to not let harassment and defamation suits weigh them down.

“Don’t be afraid. If you don’t try, you don’t gain or lose anything. But if you do try, you could uphold the ethics and institution of journalism.”
Journalist Sandhya Ravishankar to The Quint

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Published: 09 May 2020, 11:20 AM IST
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