‘Truth is Painful’: Akbar-Priya Ramani Defamation Trial Nears End

Senior advocate Rebecca John, representing Ramani, made strong counter-arguments to the claims by Akbar’s lawyers.

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Law
6 min read
The arguments in the long-running criminal defamation trial brought by MJ Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani were almost concluded on Wednesday, 27 January.
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“The imputation is the truth. You cannot look at defamation in isolation and shut your eyes to the rest of the world and pretend nothing is happening. Truth is painful, truth is bitter.”
Senior advocate Rebecca John, representing Priya Ramani

The arguments in the long-running criminal defamation trial brought by MJ Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani were almost concluded on Wednesday, 27 January, with strong arguments by Ramani’s lawyer, senior advocate Rebecca John.

The defamation case against Ramani relates to an article in Vogue in October 2017 in which she alleged that a famous media person (unnamed in the article at the time) had behaved inappropriately at her job interview conducted at the Oberoi Hotel in 1993, as well as a subsequent tweet in October 2018, which clarified that she was referring to Akbar in the beginning of the article.

The trial has gone on for nearly two years, but the final arguments and rebuttals by the lawyers are nearly over now, with John set to take a brief session on Monday, 1 February to wrap up her rebuttal.

Akbar’s Arguments Absurd, Without Merit: Rebecca John

As this is a criminal defamation trial, the arguments for the prosecution are led by lawyers for the complainant – in this case, Akbar, the veteran news editor and former Union minister. Senior advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing once again for him, had wrapped up her rebuttals to the defence’s main arguments earlier on Wednesday.

Akbar claims that Ramani’s article and tweet together caused tremendous damage to his reputation, which was a stellar one built over his decades of work in journalism and politics.

Luthra argued that the entire article by Ramani in Vogue titled ‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, an open letter’ was presented by Ramani as being about Akbar. In doing so, this defamed Akbar without any defence of truth – as the references in that article dealt with allegations against other people like Weinstein, which had nothing to do with Akbar.

Ramani, however, argues that it is clear in both the article she wrote and the tweet in 2018 that she had only ever claimed that the beginning of the article was about Akbar specifically – the other references were in fact to the “species” of male bosses who preyed on subordinates.

John sought to hammer this point home, noting that her tweet in October 2018 clearly says that she “began” her piece with her Akbar story. “In English language, that does not mean the whole piece,” she explained.

Referring to the multiple statements given by Ramani in court, John explained that Ramani had clearly said only the first four paragraphs recounted her experience with Akbar, and that as the author of the piece, explaining the structure of the article, Akbar’s argument could not stand.

Even on a plain reading of English, Akbar’s argument did not make sense, she contended.

“I request the court to please look at the article again. To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. We’ll get you ALL one day. Not an expert in English, but from what little I know, there is a clear break after those initial paras. ‘All these years later the world has changed but your SPECIES remains the same’. Therefore, by no stretch of the imagination, can the entire article be interpreted as referring to Akbar.”
Senior advocate Rebecca John, representing Priya Ramani

This is the issue that is likely to decide the whole case, as the other arguments are all ancillary to this point. If the judge accepts Luthra’s argument, then a clear case of defamation would be made out as there are descriptions of behaviour in the Vogue article that relate to Weinstein, not Akbar (despite the multiple allegations of harassment against Akbar by other women as well).

However, as John was able to establish, pointing to Ramani’s tweets and her statements in court, Ramani has consistently shown that only the first four paragraphs of her article – which describe Akbar’s alleged conduct at his room at the Oberoi hotel where he called her for a job interview in 1993 – are connected to the former Asian Age editor.

Luthra had taken her argument so far as to suggest that the references made by Ramani in her article amounted to “plagiarism” – which John contended was “absurd” and “without merit,” as Ramani had clearly explained that those references were to other articles about predatory behaviour.

‘If This is Not Predatory Behaviour, What Is?’

The other highlight of the trial had been the fact that Ghazala Wahab, one of the other women who had accused Akbar of not just sexual harassment, but sexual assault, took the stand as a defence witness.

Akbar’s lawyers had objected to this on the ground that Wahab had no idea about the incident involving Ramani, and that her testimony was not relevant to the case against Ramani.

They also objected to Ramani’s use of a Firstpost article setting out details of all the allegations against Akbar, to support her claim of Akbar’s ‘predatory’ behaviour.

John, however, explained that Akbar’s reputation was the crux of the whole case. They were arguing that while Akbar may have had a stellar reputation as a journalist, he could still be known for indulging in sexual harassment, and so all the materials she had placed before the court, including Wahab’s testimony, were relevant.

John noted that Wahab was not even the only one. Another journalist based in the US now had even accused Akbar of rape, during the time she, as a 23-year-old subordinate to then-43-year-old Akbar, had been engaging in an extra-marital affair with him.

“This is what sexual harassment looks like. No journalist who has been accused of sexual harassment can be a man of high reputation. No journalist who entered into a relationship with a subordinate can be a man of high reputation. No journalist who has been convicted of contempt of court and then feign ignorance about it, can be a man of high reputation.”
Senior advocate Rebecca John, representing Priya Ramani

John defended Ramani’s use of the word ‘predator’ to refer to Akbar, noting that this was the ordinary English meaning of the term, indicating someone who had more power than those he preyed on.

By the time of her second tweet about Akbar, where she used this term, ten women had made allegations against Akbar. “If this is not predatory behaviour, what is,” John asked. She then added:

“The usage of the term predator is not defamatory. The imputation is the truth. You cannot look at defamation in isolation and shut your eyes to the rest of the world and pretend nothing is happening. Truth is painful, truth is bitter.”

Referring to the Firstpost article that Akbar’s lawyers were arguing could not be used by Ramani to support her claims, John noted that it was Akbar’s legal team which had actually introduced the article, when they were trying to suggest that Ramani had maligned Akbar’s reputation.

Once they had done that, and Akbar had acknowledged during cross-examination that he was aware of the allegations it mentioned, then there was no reason why Ramani couldn’t use it to show that Akbar’s reputation on the issue of sexual harassment was already tainted.

Wahab’s (who was also one of those referred to in that Firstpost article) testimony was crucial to this.

“Her evidence is a frontal attack on the reputation of the claimant... To condemn evidence of DW3 (Wahab) as not relevant shows they have not understood the case of the defence. The case is that Akbar’s reputation was flawed because multiple women including two defence witnesses have complained or made allegations of sexual harassment against him.”
Senior advocate Rebecca John, representing Priya Ramani

Calling Allegations Fictitious Disrespects Women’s Experience of Sexual Harassment: Rebecca John

John also tore into Akbar’s claim that Ramani did not exercise due care and caution before putting out her tweets and article. She noted that the Supreme Court case his lawyers cited for conducting an inquiry related to a situation, where someone made allegations against a judge based on other people’s claims.

However, in Ramani’s case, she had been talking about something that had happened to her, “that is my personal experience. What inquiry am I supposed to do here?”

She also took exception to the claims that Ramani’s entire account was “fictitious”, noting that the specific allegations about the incident at the Oberoi had not been expressly denied by Akbar (who had said on the stand that he couldn’t remember any such exchange).

To term Ramani’s claims as fictitious in the circumstances disregarded her experience and was disadvantageous to women seeking to come forward to describe experiences of sexual assault.

She also rebutted Luthra’s argument that Ramani had alternative remedies she could have used to complain against Akbar, both at the time of the alleged incident and now, rather than using social media.

John pointed out that in 1993 there was no law dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace (the POSH Act was only enacted in 2013) and the only vaguely relevant IPC provision available at the time, Section 354, required some sort of assault, and hence couldn’t apply to Ramani’s case.

“She made the allegation because of the MeToo movement. The question is not when she made the allegation. The question is that when she made the allegation, was it credible or not.”
Senior advocate Rebecca John, representing Priya Ramani

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