HC refuses to review order awarding Rs 2 crore to army officer in defamation case against Tehelka

The Delhi High Court has dismissed a plea by Tehelka.Com seeking review of an order directing it to pay Rs 2 crore to an Indian army officer for the loss of reputation suffered by him on account of a 2001 “expose” by the news portal alleging his involvement in corruption in defence procurement.

Justice Neena Bansal Krishna said there was no merit in the plea, also filed by the news portal’s journalist Aniruddha Bahal, as “there is no error apparent on the face of record” or a “mistake which can be corrected within the ambit of review”.

“The review application is without merit and is hereby dismissed,” the court ruled in an order passed earlier this month.

On March 13, 2001, the news portal had carried a story alleging corruption in defence deals relating to import of new defence equipment.

Major General M S Ahluwalia, in his lawsuit, claimed he was defamed in the story ‘Operation West End’, as it was wrongly broadcast and reported that he had accepted bribe.

On July 21, Justice Krishna had directed the portal, its owner M/s Buffalo Communications, its proprietor Tarun Tejpal and two reporters, Bahal and Mathew Samuel, to pay Rs 2 crore to the plaintiff.

Seeking review, the applicants contended the judgment suffered from an error which needed to be corrected as there was “nothing factually incorrect” in the transcript which was the basis of successful prosecution of a number of accused by the CBI.

They said the plaintiff did not place on record the video clip of the operation as aired on television or provide copies of the transcript as per the law.

The court rejected the contentions and observed that a “publication would be defamatory if not made in ‘good faith for the cause of public good’ and a ‘fair comment’ cannot justify a statement which is untrue”.

“Defamation law is not to be used to gag, silence, suppress and subjugate the press and the media,” it, however, noted.

The court said the entire case of the plaintiff did not rest on the authenticity of the sting operation but only on the “editorial comments” inserted by Bahal to the transcript of recording.

It stated, “The fact remains that in the present case, respondent No. 1/plaintiff was exonerated by the Army Court of Enquiry and was only awarded with ‘Severe displeasure’ on account of his conduct which was found to be unbecoming of an Army Officer and not because of acceptance of any money as was implied in the ‘Editorial Comments’.”

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In its order passed on the lawsuit in July, Justice Krishna had said there can’t be a more blatant case of causing serious harm to the reputation of an honest army officer, adding an apology after 23 years of publication was “not only inadequate but is meaningless”.

The court had, 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.

It had observed the plaintiff not only faced lowering of estimation in the eyes of public but his character also got maligned with serious allegations of corruption which no subsequent refutation can redress or heal.

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