Defamation, Slander, Libel are serious issues. However, most cases that are filed in courts are the frivolous ones while the really serious instances of wilful defamation and slander are ignored. Usually, politicians and tall celebrities ignore slander and defamation for the simple reason that the public doesn’t believe what is being said about them. That really is the key to defamation: People must generally believe what is said, it must affect someone’s reputation negatively, it must result in some kind of verifiable damage or loss. That is usually not the case when people or entities are sued.
Some recent instances one can cite is the frequency with which Digvijay Singh has called Baba Ramdev a ‘thug’ alleging the Yoga guru sells spurious medicines. That is a clear case of slander which Ramdev has not acted upon. The most vicious case of slander and defamation in recent times has to be Vir Sanghvi calling Narendra Modi a “mass murderer”. This was repeated by Rajdeep Sardesai in an HT summit in 2007. Both could have been in very serious trouble had Modi chosen to sue but he let it pass. In yet another instance, tainted cop Sanjiv Bhatt slandered Modi by calling him a “common criminal” on TV. This again is a case of slander. And yet again, Modi has chosen to let it pass. But the extraordinary case of defamation filed by ITC against marketing and advertising guru Suhel Seth surely falls into the category of absurd. Read the full report in the Economic Times titled “ITC sues Suhel Seth for Rs 200 crore overTweets”. Yes, tweets are also a form of publishing and subject to the same defamation laws applicable to any other media. We’ll come to this case in a while. But before that let’s look at the most bizarre case of defamation – one that concerns Larry Flynt, founder of the porn magazine Hustler and religious leader Jerry Falwell. In a parody of Campari ads about the “…first time”, Hustler carried a parody about Falwell.
While Hustler magazine has always been known for its explicit pictures of nude women and for what many consider crude humour, the Protestant minister Jerry Falwell objected to the parody ad the magazine printed in 1983 targeted at him, in which Falwell related having an incestuous encounter….. The real ads were tongue-in-cheek interviews with celebrities talking about their "first time". The ads, which played off the double entendre in the headline (“X talks about his first time”), initially appeared to discuss the star’s first sexual experience before revealing that the discussion actually concerned the subject's first time drinking Campari. Falwell sued Hustler and Larry Flynt but the US Supreme court finally dismissed the case under First Amendment rights and the fact that the public would have known it’s a parody and wouldn’t have believed the satire was true and therefore Falwell didn’t really suffer any damage. It’s true the US free speech law is more or less absolute unlike Indian laws.
So how exactly has Suhel defamed ITC? Here are some tweets that the news report states ITC has claimed as defamatory:
"YC Deveshwar of ITC has had a sterling track-record of avoiding retirement at all costs...he could also be offered to the Maosits (sic) but then...." Okay, so that is a snide remark by an ex-Advertising consultant to ITC, which Suhel Seth is. Is Deveshwar avoiding retirement? In the opinion of Suhel probably and that’s his opinion. “He could also be offered to the Maoists…” Really? Now what sane person would mistake this sarcastic remark as being one that is really intended and meant by Suhel? Would people seriously believe that is what Suhel desires? Hardly so!
"YC Deveshwar of ITC has just been nominated CHAIRMAN ETERNUS (sic)...forget Emeritus..." Hahahha! I hadn’t read this before because I don’t follow Suhel Seth on twitter, but I do find it humourous. Eternus? And that is defamatory? The report says Suhel has even deleted some of his tweets but I can’t see how this play of words is defamatory. Suhel has also stated that his account was hacked but that is a defence that is unlikely to be accepted by courts. However, I don’t believe that argument is even needed.
'Yogi Devesh will teach the insider trading course at Tihar School of Business'. LOL! As Suhel mentions this particular tweet neither mentions Deveshwar (ITC chairman) nor has any reference to ITC. So the mere self-righteous assumption that this tweet refers to the petitioner is a long shot. Even if it did, Tihar is now so much in the news for all the wrong reasons that there is hardly regular user of twitter who hasn’t cracked a joke or two about it.
It is quite possible that Suhel Seth is quite peeved as a businessman in losing the large account of a company like ITC and maybe making some statements in anger. However, I feel ITC should have just sent him a polite letter to refrain rather than filing a suit straightaway. If this were to be the practice all cartoonists and satirists would be facing defamatory cases almost everyday.
The most important thing in defamation is the question whether people or public would believe the statements being made against a person to be real. Have people stopped associating with Deveshwar or ITC because of Suhel's tweets? Have the share prices of ITC dropped because of these tweets? In this case it doesn’t appear to be so and one hopes the case will be mutually settled instead of a court trial. What ITC must also realise is that by filing the suit they have made even more people aware of the tweets of Suhel, which is far worse because many, including me, hadn’t heard about these before the legal action came about.
A previous case of Barkha Dutt legally handling an unknown blogger made him and his post all the more famous and widely read. Criticism, mild insults, ridicule and sarcasm should be taken in one’s stride or at best responded to in kind. Why bring courts into it… especially for a whopping amount of 200 Crores? Where’s our sense of humour? Locked up in Tihar?