Here’s How You Can Help Protect Free Speech In India

Posted on September 14, 2016 in Society

By Abhishek Jha:

Biju Janata Dal (BJD) MP Tathagata Satpathy has launched a website for public consultation and endorsement of a draft Protection of Speech and Reputation Bill. He intends to present it to the Parliament as a Private Member’s Bill. The draft bill aims at repealing criminal defamation and codifying remedies against civil defamation through an Act of Parliament. The website speechbill.in is inviting comments on a set of ten principles of the Bill until September 27, following which the bill will be finalised by the offices of the MP.

The Bill follows an SC judgment in May, which held Indian Penal Code’s provisions against defamation as constitutional. This is in contrast to the SC’s criticism of the Tamil Nadu government in August for having filed 213 cases in the past five years for, apart from other things, criticising the government for water scarcity and reporting on the CM’s vacations. The SC is similarly in the middle of deciding a petition filed by Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai who had a defamation case against her filed by Essar after she criticised the company’s power project in Madhya Pradesh for environmental degradation.

While criminal defamation is dealt with in Chapter 21 of the IPC, civil defamation is only loosely defined by judgments. The principles listed on the website call the criminal defamation laws a disproportionate sanction on free speech, where a prolonged trial itself becomes the punishment, and ask provisions for it to be repealed. The other infirmities of the current defamation laws, the principles say, are filing of suits by parties unconnected to an incident of defamation, persons not responsible for a statement being made parties to the case, abuse by government and public figures, filing of multiple cases in different courts, and disproportional award of damages against harm sustained.

The bill being worked upon, a copy of which YKA has seen, seeks to provide protection against these shortcomings in the defamation laws. The protections are similar to those listed in the principles. Thus only a person directly harmed may file a defamation suit against persons making the statement. Associations, collective of persons, or related persons may file defamation suit after seeking leave of the court. Companies would need to show actual financial loss suffered after the statement is made.

The bill also proposes that a notice be sent by the aggrieved party before initiation of a suit, thus providing a route for settlement and avoiding long court proceedings. Similarly, it is proposed that a government, or authorities and institutions exercising government or statutory functions cannot institute a defamation suit. Public servants too cannot claim damages for statements made with respect to the discharge of their official or public duties unless the statement is made with “reckless disregard for truth” beyond being merely factually inaccurate. Provisions against award of exemplary damages to the aggrieved party and consolidation of various suits are also made in the bill.

Eleven organisations and 325 individuals had endorsed the bill by the time of writing this story. Writers, journalists, businessmen, lawyers, students, and people from diverse backgrounds have endorsed the 10 principles. The endorsement can possibly be significant for creating a public demand, given a private members’ bill has little chance of being passed in the parliament. Data compiled by PRS Legislative Research shows that a great percentage of them lapse without even being debated in the house.

More details on the #SpeechBill can be found here.

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