The Delhi High Court has awarded Rs 2 crore to an Indian Army officer for the loss of reputation suffered by him on account of a 2001 “expose” by a news portal alleging his involvement in corruption in defence procurement.
Justice Neena Bansal Krishna, while deciding a lawsuit by Major General M S Ahluwalia, on Friday directed that the amount shall be paid by Tehelka.Com, its owner M/s Buffalo Communications, its proprietor Tarun Tejpal and two reporters, Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel.
Stating that there can’t be a more blatant case of causing serious harm to the reputation of an honest army officer, the judge observed that an apology after 23 years of publication was “not only inadequate but is meaningless”.
The court, however, said the plaintiff was not able to prove any act of defamation on the part of Zee Telefilm Ltd and its officials by telecasting the story in question following an arrangement with the news portal.
The court observed that the plaintiff not only faced lowering of estimation in the eyes of the public but his character also got maligned with serious allegations of corruption which no subsequent refutation can redress or heal.
“Truth is considered to be the best vindication against slander as wisely quoted by Abraham Lincoln. Yet, truth lacks the potency to restore the reputation that one loses in eyes of a society which is always quick to judge. The disconsolate reality is that wealth lost can always be earned back; howbeit, the scar to one’s repute once etched in the soul, yields nothing but forlorn even if millions are granted in reparation,” the court said.
“In view of the findings on issue No.1 and 2, the suit is dismissed against the defendant Nos. 5 to 7, and the damages in the sum of Rs 2,00,00,000/- (Rupees two crore) is awarded to the plaintiff to be paid by defendant No.1 to 4 for having caused defamation, along with costs of the suit,” the court ruled.
On March 13, 2001, the news portal had carried a story alleging corruption in defence deals relating to import of new defence equipment.
The plaintiff, represented by lawyer Chetan Anand, claimed he was defamed in the story “Operation West End” as it was wrongly broadcasted and reported that he had accepted bribe.
In the 48-page verdict, the court rejected the defence of “truth”, “public good” and “good faith” pleaded by the defendants and said there could not be a worse defamation to a person of integrity than a “false imputation of him having demanded and then accepted bribe of Rs 50,000”.
It further noted that the consequence of such reporting was that a Court of Inquiry was initiated against the plaintiff and although no misconduct was proved against the plaintiff, “serious displeasure” was issued against him.
“The comments added by defendant no. 3 (Bahal) are per se false and defamatory to the knowledge of defendants No 1 to 4. There cannot be any more blatant case of causing serious harm and injury to the reputation of an honest army officer, who despite all the endeavours of the defendant, had refused to accept any bribe,” the court said.
“Thus, the evidence on record and in fact the admissions made on behalf of defendant No.1 to 4, establish a case of defamation against the plaintiff, entitling him to damages,” opined the court.