The ongoing defamation case against The Wire, accompanied by police action, has yet again underscored the need to decriminalise this offence, a demand that has been raised by the media fraternity from time to time.
The Wire is already being hauled over the coals by its own peers, the news media, who have questioned its lapses in publishing reports which claimed that Meta (the entity that owns Facebook and Instagram) regularly colludes with members of the BJP in removing content unfavourable to the party and Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s IT Cell. It turns out that the reports were based on questionable documents — inviting a defamation charge from the party and Malviya.
The Wire’s editors have maintained that they made an ‘honest mistake’ based on documents provided by their consultant, Devesh Kumar, for which they have apologised and retracted the news story.
But “honest mistake” is a ground that the criminal defamation law does not recognise. The BJP IT Cell chief has accordingly proceeded by invoking against The Wire editors Section 420 (cheating, carrying a sentence of imprisonment for seven years), 468 (forgery for the purpose of cheating, a cognisable and non-bailable offence carrying an imprisonment for seven years and fine), 471 (using a forged document which is known to be forged, which carries a punishment under 465 IPC of imprisonment for two years or fine or both), 500 (whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or both) and Section 120B of the IPC. The Delhi police has subsequently raided the homes of The Wire editors and seized 16 electronic devices.
The action is clearly disproportionate to the editorial error. It is a strong example of how criminalising defamation puts unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech.