'The penal provision of defamation should not be used to throttle dissent... the court must step in, if there are continuous efforts to harass persons by filing a number of defamation cases.' This was an observation from a Supreme Court bench of Justices Deepak Mishra and Rohington Nariman.
The observation was made on July 28 while the Bench was hearing a petition by Vijayakanth challenging a defamation case filed by Jayalalithaa. It came as a knock to the Jayalalithaa government which had begun an unhealthy trend of defamation suits to quell criticism.
The late Jayalalithaa was notorious for filing defamation cases against those who criticised her. Private citizens as well as media houses and political opponents or journalists, all have been slapped with defamation cases either by Jayalalithaa or by the AIADMK's cadre.
With her gone, will infamous trend of dissent quelling also go? Journalists in Tamil Nadu don't think so.
A crying shame
The Tamil Nadu government, under the leadership of Jayalalithaa, made filing defamation suits a trend to the point that the government had appointed a special lawyer merely to oversee such cases. The special advocate's job was to scan media reports and file petitions against any reports that were critical of the government, its policies or the leader.
A total of 162 defamation cases have been lodged at the principal sessions judge's court in Chennai alone. None has dared to keep track of how many such cases are with other district courts. The Jayalalithaa government has filed cases against The Hindu, The Times of India, India Today, Rediff.com, The Economic Times, NDTV, CNN-IBN, Times Now and many Tamil publications and channels. A popular Tamil publication, Vikatan, alone faces 45 defamation cases. Another bi-weekly magazine Nakkheeran is facing 19 suits against it.
Defamation is not new to Jayalalithaa. She had filed case against media houses and individuals in her first and second term in power as well but she had withdrawn the cases. This time around no cases of defamation have been withdrawn by her government starting 2012 when she assumed the office of chief minister for the third time.
"What is infuriating is the fact that the media is behaving in a subservient manner. Instead of looking at things sceptically, the media thinks it is now part of the establishment. It makes my blood boil that the media has cowed down in a democracy," said R Ramasubramanian of India Today. He has been a victim of defamation suits by Jayalalithaa as well.
Why is the media mum?
A seasoned journalist in Tamil Nadu has the answer to why. "The owner of a Tamil language channel once told me, 'If Jayalalithaa came to power, the state will be destroyed but if Karunanidhi came to power, I will be destroyed'. He was simply speaking of how media houses in Tamil Nadu wouldn't protest anything that the AIADMK government did since they didn't want DMK to come to power," he said.
"It is also to do with advertisements that the government places and the fear of losing ad revenue if opposed," he added. The DMK and its media machinery at the time was being accused of attempting to destroy all other media outlets.
Logically too, bearing the cost of legal battles came as a burden to media houses that are ultimately business establishments. "None of the cases filed by Jayalalithaa's government have reached trial stage. The cases were merely a tool to threaten, intimidate and cause financial burden to organisations and individuals,", said another senior journalist.
The dread of defamation still looms large
"Jayalalithaa was very image conscious. She assumed that any criticism of the government was criticism on her. Her party cadre is no different," said one journalist.
Journalists in Tamil Nadu are not hopeful of the new government doing away with the trend of defamation suits. They do not trust the new leadership to be any better. For now, they plan to stick to a wait and watch policy.