Wrapping up her final arguments in a defamation case filed by former Union minister M J Akbar, journalist Priya Ramani’s lawyer, Rebecca John, told a Delhi court that freedom of speech and expression is “critical and intrinsic to a democratic society”. She said that Ramani deserves to be acquitted since she has been “able to show the truth and public good of her statements made in public domain”.
Making her final arguments before Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja, John ended by quoting US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Saturday. “I was a law school teacher and that’s how I regard my role here with my colleagues who haven’t had the experience of growing up female and don’t fully appreciate the arbitrary barriers that have been put in women’s way,” John quoted Ginsburg, and stated, “This case has been a learning experience for me.”
Ramani had levelled allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against Akbar, who subsequently resigned as Union Minister of State for External Affairs in October 2018 and filed a defamation case against her.
The court has set the next date of hearing on October 13, when Akbar’s lawyer, Geeta Luthra, will make her rebuttal to John’s final arguments.
The senior advocate told the court: “Freedom of speech and expression, as given under Article 19 of Constitution, is critical and intrinsic to a democratic society. Priya Ramani has been able to show that truth and public good of her statements made in public domain…the MeToo movement revealed the prevalence and normalisation of sexual harassment at workplace, with hundreds and thousands of women across the world participating in it.”
Stating that Ramani has proved her case, John said, “In view of the above…I (Ramani) deserve to be acquitted.”
John had stated that the allegation that Ramani’s tweets were defamatory was “misplaced, and is not an argument which is sustainable”, as there was “no legal basis or factual basis for that argument”.
She submitted that at this stage, when the court is supposed to marshall evidence of both sides, “the standard under Section 499 and 500 of IPC is proof beyond reasonable doubt for them and preponderance of probabilities for us”.
During the course of hearing John also reiterated that it was no defamation if “I have done something in good faith; if I have done so, I have pleaded my truth and it is in public interest.”
She told the court: “Priya Ramani has, in her statement (to court) as well as her evidence, explained the culture of silence in workplaces regarding sexual harassment that prevailed at that time and continues even today. She said it was only for this reason that she spoke out during the MeToo movement in India, because it gave her a safe platform.
“(Journalist) Ghazala Wahab has clearly stated that there were no mechanisms for complaint within as organisation like the Asian Age (where Akbar was the editor-in-chief). The Vishaka Judgment came in 1997. It became law only in 2013, after consistent prodding by Supreme Court.”
Rebutting Akbar’s arguments that there was a delay in reporting the incident, John argued, “Priya Ramani and her witnesses have explained the reason behind the silence. Silence cannot refute her truth. She is not filing an FIR against anybody for the court to test that FIR against the standard of delay. She is responding to the complaint…her silence has been explained by her…”
John submitted, “Priya Ramani did not jump into any bandwagon…on the contrary, there was an avalanche of disclosures against the complainant (Akbar). This was not a bandwagon, this was not a trade union; these were women who came out with painful testimonies. To dismiss it as someone joining a bandwagon is to disrespect it. Assuming there was a bandwagon, why then was there only a complaint against Priya Ramani, and not the bandwagon?”
On Akbar’s allegations that Ramani made casual statements without exercising due care, John stated, “I exercise my good faith. I have discharged the burden of good faith by putting myself on the stand. I had not run away, I have admitted to facts, not feigned ignorance like the other side has. I have come clean and stated my story. This is discharge of obligation under good faith.”
On allegations that Akbar had worked hard to establish himself and all that has been tarnished with Ramani’s statements, John said, “Hard work is not something which is exclusive to the complainant, and it will certainly not be the parameter based on which Your Honour will not judge the evidence led by both sides.”
John told the court that Ramani is a credible witness and has only been attacked that there was a delay in reporting, but she “hasn’t reported or initiated a case – she is defending her case”.
“I contested the reputation of Mr Akar through my own evidence, evidence of Ghazala Wahab, admissions made by him (Akbar) with respect to Pallavi Gogoi and through and the fact that they exhibited a document which carried allegations of sexual harassment made by several women against Mr Akbar,” John told the court. “Akbar must prove his case beyond reasonable doubt, and if he is unable to do so the accused must be acquitted.”
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