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Delhi HC asks activist to take down tweets against ex-diplomat Puri, minister-husband

Justice C Hari Shankar observed that desecration of the reputation of a public figure has become a child's play in the age of social media.

Saket Gokhale (File photo)

Observing that prima facie it has not been able to find “even a scintilla of impropriety” or lack of transparency in the purchase of a Swiss apartment by former Indian diplomat Lakshmi Puri and in the disclosures made to the statutory authorities, the Delhi High Court Tuesday directed activist Saket Gokhale to immediately delete the alleged defamatory tweets posted by him against Puri.

The court also restrained Gokhale from posting “defamatory or scandalous or factually incorrect tweets” against her or her husband Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri.

The court directed Twitter to take down the tweets (16) from Gokhale’s account in case he fails to delete them within 24 hours of the order. It also asked the company to file a compliance report before the next date of hearing.

Gokhale, in his tweets last month, had referred to a property purchased by Puri in Switzerland and raised questions regarding her and her husband’s assets. He had tagged Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the tweets while seeking an inquiry by the Enforcement Directorate. “If an ex-Indian civil servant who’s with the BJP bought an overseas house worth $2 million (with no income other than salary) while in service, will ED investigate it?” tweeted Gokhale on June 13.

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It was “incumbent” upon Gokhale to carry out a preliminary due diligence exercise before posting the tweets, said Justice C Hari Shankar in the order.

The court passed the order in the suit filed by Puri seeking deletion of the tweets related to the purchase of the property, and for a decree for Rs 5 crore damages. Gokhale last week refused to take down the tweets when asked by the court.

“Prima facie, the barrage of tweets directed by the defendant against the plaintiff, with a majority of them having been posted on a single day – 23rd June, 2021 – constrains this Court to observe that the exercise undertaken by the defendant appears to have been actuated by a clear desire to target the plaintiff and her husband, for reasons which seem, at the very least, to be recondite,” it said in the order.

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Justice Shankar observed that desecration of the reputation of a public figure has become a child’s play in the age of social media. “All that is needed is the opening of a social media account and, thereafter, the posting of messages on the account. Thousands of responses are received and, in the process, the reputation of the man, who is targeted, becomes mud,” added the court.

Puri, who was the former Assistant Secretary-General at the United States, in her suit said the tweets are “maliciously motivated and designed accordingly, laced with canards and entail deliberate twisting of facts”.

The court said it was unable to accept Gokhale’s submission that no due diligence is required to be carried out before posting messages on a social media platform. “Such a submission, if accepted, would place the reputation of every citizen in the country in serious jeopardy, and open to ransom at the hands of every social media vigilante, some of whose intentions may be less than honourable,” it said.

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Observing that ideally in the first instance clarifications ought to have been sought from the person against whom the messages were intended to be posted or in the alternative from the official sources, the court said tagging the Finance Minister in a tweet has no sanctity whatsoever in law and is “woefully inadequate” to serve as notice to the minister regarding the issues which Gokhale was choosing to highlight.

“Besides, such ‘notice’ could not be by way of an ex post facto exercise having already posted the tweet, thereby closing the stable doors after the horses have bolted. The defendant ought, in the first instance, to have made enquiries with the official authorities, be it the Ministry of Finance or the Election Commission, before choosing to belabour the reputation of the plaintiff through his Twitter account. That he did not choose to do so, despite being aware of the availability of credible sources of information, additionally casts a cloud on his bona fides,” reads the order.

In the suit, Puri has submitted that the debit incurred in purchase of the apartment was still being serviced and the information was submitted to her employer at the relevant time. Placing her financial details before the court, Puri said the apartment decided to be purchased in 2005 was priced 1.6 million Swiss Franc for which CHF 1 million was borrowed from UBS Bank, Geneva and a sum of 600,000 CHF had become available to her from her daughter, a Senior Vice President with an an international investment bank, in two tranches.

“I have meticulously gone through both the affidavits, along with the annexures thereto, and am, prima facie, satisfied that there has been complete disclosure regarding the purchase of the Swiss Apartment, its value, as well as the loans taken from the UBS Bank for the purchase,” Justice Shankar said in the order, while referring to minister Puri’s election affidavits.

The court said Gokhale at the very least has been “economical” with the truth by “misleading” his Twitter followers into believing that Puri when on deputation with the UN was drawing a salary of Rs 10 to 12 lakhs, and had purchased the Swiss apartment from this salary.

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“Concealing, studiedly, the fact that the plaintiff had availed a bank loan for paying the price of the flat, the defendant repeatedly questioned the wherewithal of the plaintiff to purchase the flat from her official earnings. Most disturbingly, even after, at a late stage, acknowledging the fact that the price of the Swiss apartment had been serviced by a mortgage of the property with the bank, the defendant never chose to disabuse his followers of the impression created earlier,” it said.

First published on: 13-07-2021 at 11:10:36 am
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