A defamation verdict from Kerala

BY N P Chekkutty| IN Regional Media | 13/10/2007
The case was a high profile one because those who appeared in it as prosecution and defendants were tall figures in Kerala’s public life. M N Vijayan (left)died soon after the verdict.
N P Chekkutty describes the issues.

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), Kerala¿s premier non-governmental organization, filed a defamation case against Patom, a political journal launched by the dissident group in the CPM in the State, under Sections 500 and 501 of the Indian Penal Code at the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Ernakulam, setting off a major debate on the role of media in politics. The case field by Prof. K Pappootty, president of the KSSP on behalf of the organization, went on trial from July 13, 2006 and its verdict was pronounced by the magistrate on September 28 this year. 

The case, its long trial and eventual verdict are now part of media folklore in Kerala as it touches upon a number of aspects of Kerala society and politics, making it a classic case of a courtroom battle reflecting the major political tussles that divide the society at large. Hence the case assumed a significant role in defining the ongoing debate in Kerala society and sparked off a feverish debate on the role of media in politics and society and what constitutes a defamatory comment in matters of public debate.


The case has been a high profile one from the beginning, because those who appeared in it as prosecution and defendants were tall figures in Kerala¿s public life. It was for all practical purposes a side show to the main battle in the CPM, the most powerful party in the State, which is divided into two major camps, on political and ideological grounds. The case also took a tragic turn towards the end, as Prof. M N Vijayan, one of the most respected leftist intellectuals and editor of Patom, who was the second accused in the case, died of a massive heart attack, in front of television cameras and media-persons as he addressed a press conference at the Trissur Press Club on October 3, while speaking about the important aspects of the case and its verdict.


The case filed by the KSSP alleged that an article in the Patom magazine dated May-June 2004, written by S Sudheesh, a columnist with the magazine, was defamatory to its  reputation as it described the KSSP as an organization which indulged in anti-national activities working for foreign agencies. It also alleged that the said article which ran into more than 20 pages in the magazine, used a number of epithets and words that put the organization, its leaders like Dr. M P Parameswaran, Dr. T M Thomas Isaac, Dr B Ekbal and others in a poor light and raised questions about their standing as important figures in Kerala¿s public life, describing them as "imperialist stooges, foreign agents and spies". The petition said that since a calumnious and derogatory campaign was carried out by the magazine, which was taken up by the mainstream media in the State, the organization suffered heavy losses as a number of its activists left its ranks and it suffered immense damage because of its loss of face among the public.


The crux of the allegations made by Mr. Sudheesh in his Patom article, which was echoed  by an editorial written in the same issue by its editor, Prof. M N Vijayan, was that Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, which is known as a left wing non-governmental organization  with strong anti-imperialist credentials, was in fact, working  in cahoots with those same forces and had accepted foreign funding for some research work that it took up, without going through the formal official clearances for the same. This foreign aid, which it received through the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, from a Dutch Government agency was routed through its subsidiary IRTC ( Integrated Rural Technology Centre, Palakkad), with ulterior motives and the subsequent study of village level resources, charted in resource maps prepared by the KSSP and the IRTC, were made available to foreign agencies, the article had alleged.


The KSSP, in its petition, pointed out that the funds for the research work was made available to them by the Kerala Government¿s autonomous research institution, the internationally respected Centre for Development Studies which was originally set up by eminent economist Dr. K N Raj, after a scrutiny of the projects proposed by  it. The same research funding was made available to more than 300 scholars in the State and it was with criminal defamatory intent that the name of KSSP was singled out in the magazine article for such an allegation.


The court examined a number of witnesses and documents: Six from the side of the  prosecution (including KSSP president Prof. Pappootty and five others) and Mr. Sudheesh for the defendants, besides a large number of documents, mainly local newspaper and magazine reports. The major points the court had to decide, according to the 23-page verdict, were: Whether the imputations made by Patom magazine in its editorial and articles were defamatory; whether they lowered the public image of the KSSP; whether the accused were justified in their action by the support of truth; whether their actions were justified by the principle of public good and good faith; whether any criminal offence has been committed, etc.


Going through the actual words used by the authors in their articles, the court comes to the conclusion that these "comments were per se defamatory." The court finds that the language generally used in the article against a highly respected public organization like KSSP, and public personalities like Dr. T M Thomas Isaac, then a State committee member of the CPM and currently Finance Minister of the State, and Dr. B Ekbal, an eminent neurosurgeon and then vice chancellor of Kerala University, were "excessive and volatile".


But when the other points were being considered as to the culpability of the offence, the court makes the important observation that Patom magazine was a political journal edited by an eminent left wing thinker like Prof. M N Vijayan, who is known as a "leading light  in Kerala society and public life" along with other similar eminences like Justice V R Krishna Iyer and Prof. Sukumar Azhikode. Both the magazine and the KSSP are known to be forces in the left circles and hence the criticism can be construed as a "corrective effort" against the tendency to toe the line of globalization and acceptance of foreign funding. The court comes to the conclusion, based on the evidence before the court and from the "reluctant admission" made by the KSSP president during cross examination that they had received foreign funding for research work, that the "accused are justified in their allegation" about acceptance of foreign funding by the KSSP. It can be considered as fair criticism made in pursuance of public good. "Though the words are excessive, they would not lead anyone to think that the KSSP (had) really engaged in espionage" activities, averred the court acquitting all the accused, the editor, printer& publisher and the columnist of Patom, political magazine.


The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad has come out with a statement critical of the verdict, asserting that the findings of the court were not according to the evidence provided before it. They have said they would appeal in a higher court of law.


But the case and its conclusion appears to have widened the scope for public criticism and media¿s engagement with the establishment over critical issues like governance and policy making. Though the efforts made by Patom in its articles criticizing the collaborative efforts of the KSSP and the influence they wielded in formulating  public policy at the Kerala State Planning Board and other official forums during the last LDF Government (where they had a substantial representation), were wanting in many aspects including a dignified and temperate use of  language and fairness of comment, they were the first attempts to bring into focus major issues of public policy in Malayalam media in a long time. As Prof. M N Vijayan said in his final comments at the Press Club, "our innocence is not the matter here, but the culpability of the KSSP is the real issue. We are accused of using foul language, but it was Bernard Shaw who said if you want to catch the attention you need to use strong language…"


Those were his final utterances, and they go a long way in pushing the frontiers of critical journalism in the days of policy planning as a backroom operation.





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