• Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - 05:30
July 8 may be a very big day for Nakkeeran Gopal. On that day, the Supreme Court will hear four separate petitions by Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Subramanian Swamy, and himself against defamation laws and may rule on a section of the law which has been his bane for decades. For Nakkeeran Gopal, the editor of  Tamil bi-weekly ‘Nakkeeran’, the case is especially important as he has been on the receiving end of the political use of defamation provisions and wants Section 199 (2) of the Criminal Procedure Code allowing special prosecution for defaming government servants scrapped.   Gopal’s claim to fame has been with his interview of sandalwood brigand, Veerappan. ‘Nakkeeran’ has been popular for its bold investigative reports that often border on the scandalous and even scurrilous, which have gotten the magazine into trouble, irrespective of the party in power in Tamil Nadu. In a critical article on current TN Environment Minister Thoppu ND Venkatachalam, the magazine called him “ineffective”. The minister not only took the magazine to task, but filed cases against every reporter in the office. Earlier this year, when a young woman surfaced claiming to be AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa’s daughter, Nakkeeran was one of the few media houses that published the story, calling her a fraud. “A case was filed against us for that too,” Gopal says. Nakkeeran is currently fighting 211 cases in various courts, including 15 cases filed by the current TN regime and others by private parties. But there are also 260 FIRs which are still being investigated. The legal battles are expensive, both in terms of time and money. “In most cases, there is a court hearing or summons every 15 days or a month. Lawyers’ fees, court fees, all have to be paid. Each time reporters from districts have to travel to other courts,” said Gopal while speaking to The News Minute. He also claims that he has been implicated in three murder cases and two kidnapping cases in 2001-06 by private people acting on the behest of political parties. A Nakkeeran magazine cover  The long-haul Nakkeeran’s decision to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention in defamation laws comes from having worked in firefighting mode for decades. Gopal says a portion of the defamation cases against him are nothing but a game of spite that DMK and AIADMK play against each other. From 1991-95, the AIADMK regime led by Jayalalithaa slapped more than 100 cases against the magazine. “The cases were withdrawn as soon as the DMK came into power. The DMK too has filed defamation cases against us, but the number is much lesser than that of the AIADMK. The point remains that defamation is simply a political tool,” Gopal says. In 1994, Gopal attempted to publish a 300-page autobiography of noted criminal Auto Shankar who was convicted for six gruesome murders in Chennai, and hung in Salem Central Prison in 1995. After he and his gang were arrested, Shankar wrote his autobiobiography in Chenglepet jail in 1991, and handed it over to his wife to be published by Nakkeeran.  Gopal had published a series of stories detailing Shankar’s connection with powerful people including prison officials and other IPS officer who were allegedly his partners in crime. But when Gopal announced that the magazine would publish the whole autobiography, it created a furore. According to Nakkeeran's petition, a video cassette and photographs proved the presence of several police officers at a house warming function at Shankar's house.  Publication of Shankar's writings landed Gopal in trouble with the Tamil Nadu government.  Auto Shankar This case however, turned out to be an important one for the media’s right to freedom of expression. In 1994, in Rajagopal vs Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court said that the state could not impose prior restraint on the media. The state had said that it could impose prior restraint as the magazine article was false and defamatory. Applying a US Supreme Court ruling to an Indian scenario, the SC said that even if the statements made were false, public officials could not seek damages related to official duties, unless they could prove that the defamatory statements were made with malicious intention. The rationale for this ruling was that honest mistakes could be made. In January 2012 Nakkeeran apologized to AIADMK chief and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa for publishing a story describing AIADMK chief, Jayalalithaa, as a “beef-eating” person who in turn fed it to AIADMK founder MGR.  In reaction, party workers hurled stones and assaulted the magazine’s office watchman, burned copies of the magazine. Jayalalithaa herself filed a defamation case against the magazine and Gopal. Nakkeeran is not the only one with the distinction of have dozens of defamation cases against it. English daily The Hindu has 124 defamation cases filed by the ruling AIADMK government in 2004. Following the complaint against Nakeeran over the article, a complaint was filed against The Hindu for publishing a story with the same contents the day after Nakkeeran carried the report. Is Section 199 (2) just a loophole? Under Indian law, defamation can be both civil and criminal, but there has been increasing opinion that Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code need to be de-criminalized as it goes beyond the scope of reasonable restrictions on the right to free expression. The punishment for criminal defamation is fine or a maximum of two years imprisonment under Section 500 or both. However, exceptions to defamation include truth and statements meant for public good; and opinions expressed in good faith about the conduct of a public servant. This provision allows for genuine criticism of a public official’s conduct, but another provision of the law has attracted the ire of free speech activists. Section 199 (2) of the Criminal Procedure Code allows special prosecution for defaming government servants.  While section 499 requires filing of a defamation suit before a court, the public prosecutor can simply file a complaint under Section 199 (2). Gopal says that Tamil Nadu is one of the few states where is provision is widely used. “We are not against defamation, but we are against frivolous defamation. Many cases are filed on behalf of the Chief Minister, but how do we know if the CM is even aware of these cases? This law that allows public servants to sue media even for legitimate criticism has to go.” (Image source : www.nakkheeran.in)