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‘MJ Akbar Defamation Case Came at Personal Cost’: Priya Ramani

In the last hearing, senior advocate Geeta Luthra called Priya Ramani’s Vogue piece ‘inadmissible.’

Updated
India
7 min read
‘MJ Akbar Defamation Case Came at Personal Cost’: Priya Ramani
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In her cross-examination in defamation case filed by former Union Minister MJ Akbar, journalist Priya Ramani on Monday, 9 September, said it was necessary to say what she did and has spoken the truth at a “great personal cost”.

Ramani said, “I spoke the truth in my Vogue article and in my tweet. It is important for women to speak up about sexual harassment at workplace. Many of us are brought up to believe that silence is a virtue.”

“This case has come at a great personal cost to me, I had nothing to gain from it. I am a well-regarded, respected journalist who lives a quiet life with her family in Bengaluru. It is not easy for any woman to make such disclosures. By keeping silent, I could have avoided the subsequent targeting. But that would not have been the right thing to do.”
Priya Ramani

She concluded her statement as a defence witness on Monday – with the end of this ‘examination-chief’, her cross-examination by MJ Akbar’s lawyers began. The cross-examination was not concluded on Monday, and will resume when the matter is taken up next on 24 and 25 October.

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Takeaways From the Hearing on 9 September

Several questions posed by MJ Akbar’s lawyers appeared to be asked to get under Ramani’s skin, backed up by the manner in which the questioning was conducted, including numerous objections to any attempts by Ramani to clarify or contextualise statements put across as suggestions.

At one point the judge had to say that if the witness was not allowed to provide her answers, the trial “would be vitiated.”

A notable line of questioning by Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra, which could prove a flashpoint in the final arguments and the judgment, was where she pointed out that Ramani had had opportunities to write about sexual harassment at the workplace before.

A specific article in November 2013 by Ramani in Mint about this was highlighted, and Luthra argued that Ramani’s failure to mention Akbar in these articles shows the 2018 tweet was malicious..

Luthra imputed that Ramani decided to make the allegations against Akbar after he joined the BJP in 2014 and became a minister in 2016.

However, MJ Akbar’s lawyers’ attempt to say that Priya Ramani’s entire article in Vogue  (which didn’t name any person) was about MJ Akbar – which would be a useful thing for them to argue, and which Ramani contests – did not appear to be going well.

The judge upheld several objections raised by Ramani’s lawyer Rebecca John to the line of questions on this, including about a to Ramani’s tweet by a random member of the public, as well as a suggestion that the “common man” would construe the entire article as being about MJ Akbar.

Luthra Cross-Examines Ramani

Senior advocate Geeta Luthra, who is representing MJ Akbar, began her cross-examination on Monday by asking Ramani several personal questions about her ambitions of becoming a journalist, and her tenures at various media organisations.

First she asked her which journalists she had looked up to when growing up and as a student. Ramani answered by naming a few journalists including Harinder Baweja – who was present in court to support her – but Luthra insisted on her naming others as well. After that, Luthra asked her which newspapers she’d read while growing up, and again pressed her after she’d named a few.

The next line of questioning by Luthra focused on Ramani’s tenure at various media organisations. She began by asking Ramani about her time at the Asian Age – it was during her interview for this newspaper at the end of 1993 that she alleges MJ Akbar behaved inappropriately with her.

Luthra wanted to know which articles Ramani had written during her stint with the Asian from January to October 1994.

“In the first 10 days, when I worked in Delhi, I worked on dry run articles about political press conferences that I attended,” Ramani said. She then added “When I moved to Bombay, I was a business journalist. I had a report every day on the Bombay Stock Exchange.” On being asked, she said that she wrote around one article a day, as she was the only business correspondent at the Bombay office of the Asian Age.

Luthra wanted to know what the headlines of the articles were and kept pressing for these details, but Ramani said she could not remember these.

Luthra then asked Ramani about her time at Reuters, which she joined after the Asian Age. She wanted to know when she joined, and for details of the articles she wrote. Ramani answered that she used to write the daily stock reports at Reuters, but couldn’t remember her exact joining dates.

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The same questions were then repeated for Ramani’s stint at Elle magazine, which she joined after working at Reuters. She interjected several times when Ramani tried to respond, explaining she didn’t write that many articles as she had different responsibilities as a deputy editor there.

Despite Ramani clarifying that she did not remember the dates she joined any organisation, Luthra then proceeded to ask her the exact date of joining Cosmopolitan magazine and, again, the specific names of articles that she wrote.

When Ramani replied she used to write the ‘Edit Note’ in each issue of Cosmopolitan, and could provide copies of these to the court at the next hearing, Luthra objected again, saying these were columns, not articles.

During the cross-examination, Luthra put forward suggestions to be answered by Ramani, seeking to show that her “so-called” dream of becoming a journalist was “contingent” on being hired by The Asian Age. Ramani denied this, and also objected to the term “so-called” dream.

She maintained that the Asian Age was a good opportunity to realise the dream, but denied Luthra’s suggestion that she would have given up on being a journalist if she hadn’t got that job with the Asian Age.

On Saturday, Ramani had narrated what had happened during her interview with Akbar, but Luthra suggested on Monday no interview took place in the way she described it, and that she “maliciously and intentionally concocted this story to damage Mr Akbar's reputation,” adding that her 2018 tweet about her article amounted to “false news”.

The Relevant Lines of Questioning

The most effective moment for MJ Akbar came when Luthra alleged that Ramani had “multiple opportunities to call out Akbra’s sexual harassment earlier, but only brought them out later with the intent to harm him.”

She posited that articles had been written about sexual harassment at the workplace for many years before the MeToo movement broke, including in 2013 when Tarun Tejpal was accused of sexual harassment. Luthra then pulled out something Ramani did not seem to be expecting, an article on sexual harassment at the workplace by Ramani in November 2013 in Mint titled “Sorry boss, we found our voices”.

Luthra’s objective with this was to show that Ramani invented the allegations after MJ Akbar joined the BJP in 2014 and became a minister in 2016, and that this showed a malicious intent. Ramani refuted the allegation, and this will no doubt be contested in final arguments, and could be an important issue in the final judgment.

The other key line of questioning by Luthra seeks to demonstrate that the entirety of Ramani’s article in Vogue in 2017 was about MJ Akbar. This is because the article talks of more than just the alleged inappropriate behaviour by Akbar during his interview with Ramani, but also talks of other examples of sexual harassment and even assault.

Ramani has argued that the article, which does not refer to anyone by name, is not all about Akbar. She reiterated several times during the cross-examination as well that she clearly said in her 2018 tweet that her Vogue article “began” with her MJ Akbar story, and that after the first four paragraphs, it deals with generic examples of sexual harassment by male editors.

To prove her point, Luthra tried to use replies to Ramani’s tweets by random members of the public, and also tried to ask her questions about what the “common man” would think when viewing the tweet and article together. However, the judge accepted the objections raised by Rebecca John to these questions, noting that Ramani was not there to testify on behalf of the common man.

In conclusion, Ramani termed Luthra’s suggestions that her tweets affected Akbar’s image and the article lowered his reputation in the eyes of the “general public and right-thinking members of society” as ‘incorrect’.

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What’s Happened Before

Akbar filed a criminal defamation complaint against Ramani after she accused him of sexual harassment as the #MeToo campaign raged on in India last year.

Ramani, on Saturday, testified as the first defence witness in the case wherein she recalled the entire timeline of events since 1993 — right from her "uncomfortable" interview with Akbar to leaving his office and never working with him again.

She added, “I never met Mr Akbar alone in the Delhi office or the Bombay office alone. We always interacted in the edit meetings or with the whole office.”

She talked about getting the opportunity of writing an article in Vogue magazine on male bosses in the backdrop of #MeToo movement.

She said, “While researching for the article, I couldn’t help but remember my personal story with my first male boss.”

Barkha Dutt, Tavleen Singh, Namita Bhandare and Suhasini Haider were also present in the court in a show of support for Ramani on Saturday. Rajdeep Sardesai, Siddarth Varadarajan, Harinder Baweja were present in the court on Monday.

On 23 August, she had begun her statement under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to the court and said, “I defend the truth spoken in public interest and for the public good. It is only now that sexual harassment at workplace is regarded as a serious offence.”

Akbar resigned as minister on 17 October 2018.

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