Asserting that it made little sense in a democracy to jail people for "speaking their minds", senior Biju Janata Dal (BJD) member Tathagata Satpathy has said that the country's age-old defamation laws need an "urgent re-look" and maintained that he would soon move a private member's bill in the Lok Sabha to bring about much-needed change.
"Essentially, I am questioning a law that actually puts the right to freedom of speech -- as enshrined in the constitution itself -- in question," Satpathy told IANS in an interview here.
"The criminal defamation law, therefore, needs to go. The present law actually mandates a system wherein people can be jailed for speaking their minds. I have decided to move a private member's bill in the winter session (in November-December)," he said.
The MP from Dhenkanal in Odisha maintained that lately he has been also provoked by "two contradictory judgements" on defamation laws.
"In one case, the Supreme Court, on the request of petitioners Subramanian Swamy, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, considered the validity of the existing law and said it is constitutional. But in another case, the apex court counselled Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa to understand that public figures must face criticism. I am looking for more clarity," Satpathy said.
In its ruling in May, the apex court had noted that "the right to freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right" and that freedom of expression has to be "balanced with the other person's right to reputation", he said, but in August it said differently on Jayalalithaa's petition, pointing out that the criminal defamation law should not be misused.
Maintaining that the existing laws have been "generally abused", he said that, in his bill, he is trying to focus on three basic features: "Remove criminality, protect reputation and codify and strengthen civil proceedings as the lower courts, in the absence of effective guidelines, create problems for subordinate judges to process cases."
"There are so many inherent contradictory issues in the defamation law. One can file both criminal and civil suits. The defamation amount is left to anybody's wild imagination. One popular news magazine was sued for Rs 500 crore. Is that magazine worth that huge amount?"
Satpathy, who has a penchant for taking as a compliment words like "maverick" hurled at him, said: "As editor and publisher of my newspaper 'Dharitri', after a five-year defamation case in court, I was fined Rs 50,000 and jailed for six months."
Asked whether his decision to push the bill would seek to protect the media as, on a number of occasions, defamation cases are filed against journalists and media organisations, Satpathy said, albeit in a lighter vein: "It is just the opposite. Actually, I want to protect the rich and my politician friends from you all bad journalists."
Satpathy maintained that on the broader level, he looks at the issue of need for changes in the defamation law from a social perspective, saying: "If my suggestions are accepted and changes are brought about, this will go a long way in strengthening the judicial process vis-a-vis freedom of expression."
"So far the reforms we talk about are confined to the economic paradigm only. But we must note, we live in a society and not in an economy per se. So, unless we bring social reforms, we cannot have a sound legal system which would ultimately make economic reforms sustainable," he contended.
He said the initial response on his move from members of parliament has been overwhelming. "I have got good response and MPs have assured cooperation. I have also spoken to (Union Law Minister) Ravi Shankar Prasad and (BJP MP) Subaramanian Swamy, who happens to be at the receiving end of defamation laws," he said.
(Nirendra Dev can be contacted at email@example.com)