SC's timely rap of Jayalalithaa

The Supreme Court’s reprimanding of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa for saying that she cannot use defamation case to throttle democracy and asking her to face criticism as she was a public figure, has not come a day too soon. Hearing a petition filed by MDMK chief A Vijayakanth and his wife Premlata regarding a non-bailable warrant issued against them in a defamation case, the court observed last week, “Accept that you (Jayalalithaa) are a public figure and have to face criticism. You cannot use defamation case to throttle democracy... No other state misuses state machinery like the Tamil Nadu government in filing defamation cases.” The court had observed only last month that, “defamation cannot be used as a political counter weapon against its critics,” and had advised the state government to concentrate on ‘good governance.’

These are a mere rap on the knuckles for a chief minister, who, over her three terms since the year 2000 has repeatedly used criminal defamation against her political opponents and media to intimidate them into submission. Her government had directed the public prosecutors across the state to file defamation cases on the pretext of “derogatory remarks against the chief minister,” whenever her actions or that of her government were questioned. Criticisms over spending public money on advertisements, comments on the handling of Chennai floods last year in which over 470 people were killed, or speculative reports about her health, have all resulted in defamation cases in Chennai and other district courts. In the last five years, about 215 such cases are reported to have been filed. Those arraigned before the courts have to appear before them regularly, and many of these cases have dragged on for years. Even 92-year-old former chief minister M Karunanidhi has not been spared. Tamil publication Nakkeeran alone has been slapped with over a 100 cases. This example has been dutifully followed by some of her ministers and bureaucrats as well.

Every government is expected to accept fair criticism of its statements and actions by the civil society, particularly from the political opponents and the media. In fact, in the New York Times case (1964), the US Supreme Court had held that “even untrue statements may not be defamatory if a journalist has shown due diligence in investigating and verifying his/her sources.” Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of India heard an appeal to decriminalise defamation, which is a colonial legislation of 1837 vintage, but unfortunately, did not do so. A larger bench should take up the matter once again. Otherwise, the elected governments will continue to misuse it to the detriment of democracy.  

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