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October 25, 2020
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‘Silence Can’t Refute Her Truth’: M.J. Akbar’s Defamation Case Against Priya Ramani Nears End

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New Delhi: Senior journalist Priya Ramani’s counsel on Saturday closed her arguments in the defamation case that former Union minister of state for external affairs and journalist M.J.Akbar had filed against her.

Ramani’s trial has been taking place at a district court in Delhi since May 2019. Akbar had alleged that her tweets and articles in which she said that Akbar sexually harassed her about 20 years ago were not done in good faith, and that they amounted to defaming his reputation as a senior editor and a politician. He also accused Ramani, who is critical of the current political establishment, of targeting him with false accusations because he is a member of the ruling party.

Ramani’s counsel, senior advocate Rebecca John, refuted all these allegations in her closing remarks before the court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja. The case is seeing its final hearings. John’s closing remarks came after four days of arguments.

She contended that Akbar’s allegations of defamation were untenable as several precedents show that “IPC section 499 (pertaining to defamation) and its exceptions have no application to the facts of the case”.

She argued that Ramani had already categorically stated that there was a culture of silence about incidents of sexual harassment at the workplaces, and the Me Too movement provided her a safe platform to talk about her harassment by Akbar after 20 years. John also said that as many as 14 women have also made similar charges against Akbar. Witnesses in the case like Ghazala Wahab and Niloufer Venkataraman, who have distinguished records as a practicing journalists, have also deposed in court that there were no mechanisms for complaints regarding sexual harassment at Asian Age, the newspaper which Akbar edited.

Further, John argued that Ramani’s harassment happened about 20 years ago when there were no Vishakha guidelines, which provides remedial and punitive measures in cases of sexual harassment at workplaces, and that even the Indian Penal Code was limited in its scope to address such incidents.

“Silence can’t refute her truth,” John argued.

Also read: M.J. Akbar, Minister and Former Editor, Sexually Harassed and Molested Me

Further, on the charge that Ramani threw herself on the bandwagon which targeted Akbar, John said that such an accusation is “not respectful to the testimonies (of women who alleged sexual harassment by Akbar)”.

John added that even if, for once, one assumes that Ramani’s allegations were part of a bandwagon, why did Akbar “selectively target” her and file a defamation case only against her.

On the allegations that Ramani made her statement “casually”, and used words like “predator” or “pervert” against Akbar to tarnish his reputation, John invoked Section 52 of the IPC which defined “good faith”. She said that “good faith” defined in the section categorically says that words should be used with “due care and attention”.

Ramani, John argued, has already discharged her burden of good faith by not running away from trial, by deposing in front of the court, and giving her side of the story. “She didn’t feign ignorance, she stated her story,” said John, adding that Ramani has clearly contextualised why she used the word “predator” to describe Akbar.

“Ramani’s explanations are absolutely relevant to the facts of the case,” John said. John sought to remind the court that the “predator is always stronger than the prey”.

She argued that while Ramani admitted that she tweeted and wrote an article detailing her harassment at the hands of Akbar, she contested the allegation that her imputation against Akbar were done with the sole purpose to either harm him or put his reputation at stake.

“There is no case of defamation if the imputation is based on truth and public good,” John said in her closing remarks. She said that the truth of Ramani’s tweets and articles have already been proven during cross-examinations, and that there was no remote motive on the part of Ramani. Thus, the allegation that Akbar was targeted for being a member of the ruling party is baseless, John said, adding that Ramani’s explanation and narration of her harassment in the court has “introduced doubt” in the case of the complainant.

“Freedom of speech and expression is critical and integral to a democratic society. She (Ramani) was a small part of the global Me Too movement which revealed the normalisation of sexual harassment at the workplace,” John said. She concluded her arguments by invoking a statement by US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died on Saturday, that the Me Too movement was “an attempt to correct a historical wrong”.

Akbar’s counsel Geeta Luthra will give her rebuttal to John’s arguments on October 13 and 15.

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