NEW DELHI – A New Delhi court on Wednesday acquitted an Indian journalist of defamation after she accused MJ Akbar, a prominent former minister and newspaper editor of sexual harassment, in a dispute widely used as a barometer for the young # The country’s MeToo movement is regarded.
Mr. Akbar charged journalist Priya Ramani with criminal defamation after she made her allegations. However, the court found that Mr. Akbar could not prove his case and said that Ms. Ramani’s allegations were in the interests of preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
The court said in its order that “the right to reputation cannot be protected at the expense of the right to dignity”.
Mr. Akbar has the option to appeal.
Had Ms. Ramani been found guilty of defamation, she could have been imprisoned for up to two years, fined, or both. Indian law allows individuals to bring criminal defamation lawsuits in court, although the legal standard is higher than in civil defamation cases.
Although Ms. Ramani was acquitted, experts say the defamation suit may still act as a deterrent to women who want to complain about harassment and violence by powerful men. Mr. Akbar, a member of the Indian Parliament, gathered a team of nearly 100 lawyers to bring his defamation lawsuit against Ms. Ramani.
Mr. Akbar, who founded and edited several newspapers and magazines before moving to politics, was the most prominent figure in Indian public life to face widespread allegations of sexual harassment in the face of the rise of the #MeToo movement. He is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, and was part of the team that helped put Mr Modi to power in India’s 2014 elections.
He resigned as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in 2018 after Ms. Ramani’s allegations of sexual harassment prompted 20 other women to sign a letter containing similar allegations. Mr. Akbar has denied all of the women’s allegations.
Ms. Ramani’s allegations centered on Mr. Akbar’s tenure in the Asian Age, the newspaper he founded in the early 1990s.
In October 2017, she wrote an article for Vogue India describing an uncomfortable encounter with a senior editor in a hotel room during an interview more than 20 years ago. She described him as a legend in the news industry without giving his name.
A year later, in October 2018, when the #MeToo movement swept Indian social media with Bollywood stars and journalists, Ms. Ramani tweeted a link to Vogue history, this time identifying Mr. Akbar, then junior foreign minister in Mr. Modi’s cabinet .
“Many women have worse stories about this predator,” she wrote. “Maybe they share.”
In a matter of days, nearly a dozen journalists came forward on allegations ranging from harassment to rape by Mr. Akbar during his tenure as chief editor of various Indian publications. By the end of the month, 21 journalists had published their allegations. They said Mr. Akbar used his position as senior editor to harass and intimidate them, mostly young women starting their careers in journalism.
Mr. Akbar stepped down on the charges but filed a defamation lawsuit against Ms. Ramani the following day. Ms. Ramani has since deactivated her Twitter account. Mr. Akbar has said that the deactivation is manipulating evidence.
At a trial in September, Ms. Ramani said her allegations were not defamation because they were true and in the public interest.
Mr Akbar did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Wednesday. Ms. Ramani said she could not discuss the case until a verdict was passed.
“I spoke because women spoke before me,” she said at a literature festival in 2019. “I spoke so that people could speak after me.”