Supreme Court raps the Tamil Nadu chief minister for misusing defamation law
Exactly seven months before the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, Speaker P. Dhanapal, while wrapping up on the last day of the assembly session in October 2015, hailed his leader and chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram for her “people friendly” policies. He praised her for her supremacy and noted that she had read 182 statements under rule 110 in the floor of the assembly only for the welfare of the people. But what Dhanapal failed to note was the 190 criminal defamation cases filed by his leader against political opponents, journalists and media houses. Ten months later now, the Supreme Court has come down heavily on Jayalalithaa for filing 213 criminal defamation cases in five years.
“Anyone calling a government corrupt or unfit cannot be slapped with defamation case. There has to be tolerance to criticism. Defamation cases cannot be used as a political counter weapon. Cases for criticising the government or bureaucrats create a chilling effect,” observed the top court bench comprising of Justices Dipak Misra and R.F. Nariman, while hearing a petition filed by DMDK chief Vijayakanth.
On July 28, while hearing the same petition, the bench asked the Tamil Nadu government to furnish the complete list of defamation cases filed by the chief minister. It may be hard to believe that the state government has a special lawyer to oversee these cases. “The special lawyer will decide if the statement by any politician or a news report is defamatory. If he feels it is defamatory, he will prepare the affidavit and give it to the city public prosecutor who will in turn file the case,” say well informed sources in the Madras High Court.
It is a long list of cases in which at least 69 have been filed against the opposition DMK, 28 against Vijayakanth and 24 against his party DMDK. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy and several other media houses have also faced the wrath of the chief minister in the last five years. What is alarming is that anyone criticising the government or Jayalalithaa would be immediately pulled to the court. At the Principal Sessions Judge’s (PSJ) court alone 162 cases have been filed against politicians, journalists, media houses and a woman newsreader. Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan and bi-weekly Nakheeran were always at the receiving end.
Vikatan was sued again in the first week of August even after the apex court expressed its anguish against the defamation cases on July 28. It was worse in 2014, when every other publication which wrote about her health was sued. Rediff, Tehelkha and even Subramanian Swamy were dragged to the court for talking about Jayalalithaa’s health. The height of hatred was when television anchor Cyrus Broacha was sued for dressing like Jayalalithaa in his spoof show The Week that Wasn’t.
These are the cases filed by either Jayalalithaa or the government for anything considered defamatory against the chief minister. Apart from these, there are hundreds of defamation cases pending in every district court filed by her ministers. But not a single defamation case filed by the government or Jayalalithaa has seen the light of the day in these five years.
It may be recalled that at least 120 cases were filed by Jayalalithaa and her government during her first term in 1991-1996. At least 125 cases were filed during her second term in 2001-2006. All these were predominantly against the media houses and journalists. However, things started changing in 2011 after Jayalalithaa took over for the third time with a thumping majority. The first case was filed in 2011 against PMK leader S. Ramadoss, when he commented on her visit to her Kodanad house in a press statement. Since then the number of cases have been constantly increasing.