Lawsuits seen having 'chilling effect' on #MeToo movements in South Asia

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    Published: 2021-02-20 11:39:38 BdST

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FILE PHOTO: A vendor sells #MeToo badges at a protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California US November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

The threat of jail under India's criminal defamation law has had a "chilling effect" on the country's #MeToo movement, the lawyer who successfully defended a female journalist sued by a former government minister has warned.

MJ Akbar stepped down as a minister in 2018 after he was accused of sexual misconduct during his earlier career as a newspaper editor by a number of women, including the journalist Priya Ramani.

Akbar, who denies all the allegations, filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against Ramani accusing her of having "fabricated" her story.

This week a court in New Delhi found Ramani not guilty of the charge, which carries a sentence of up to two years in jail.

"A criminal defamation case is a convenient tool, where a woman has to face criminal charges in court and the possibility of jail time," her lawyer Rebecca John told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"And this sort of intimidation of course has a chilling effect on others and prevents women from speaking up. In effect, it silenced other women."

Akbar, a veteran editor who founded many publications, was one of the highest profile figures to be accused of sexual misconduct in India.

On Friday his lawyer Geeta Luthra defended his decision to sue Ramani under criminal rather than civil law and said he would likely appeal the verdict.

"Where does a man maligned on social media go for justice?" said Luthra. "Unlike in the United States, there are enormous delays in civil suits and the damages given are just a token amount."

PRECEDENT

Many human rights advocates argue that making defamation a criminal offence violates the right to free speech. Last year, Human Rights Watch said India's law should not be used as a legal response to complaints of sexual harassment.

In neighbouring Pakistan, criminal defamation laws have also been used against women making accusations of sexual misconduct.

One high-profile case currently going through the courts involves the actress and singer Meesha Shafi, who in 2018 used Twitter to accuse the well-known musician Ali Zafar of sexually harassing her, a charge he denies.

She and eight others have been charged by the Federal Investigation Agency under Pakistan's cyber crime law with defaming Zafar online.

Shafi's lawyer, Nighat Dad, welcomed the Delhi court's verdict, saying it had "opened up ways to keep the women who dare to speak out against harassment, safe and secure".

"I think a good precedent has been set by the trial court of Delhi. Given that Pakistan and India have common context and cultural sensitivities," she said, calling for Pakistan's parliament to scrap laws that criminalise libel.

The judge in the Ramani case, magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey, said women must be free to complain about sexual misconduct without fear that they themselves could be prosecuted.

"The woman cannot be punished for raising voice against the sex abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman," he wrote in his judgment.

One Indian lawyer who is defending a client against such charges said it was "a bullying tactic used often to set an example and dissuade others from speaking up".

"Just the thought of getting a criminal defamation notice is scary and the process that follows scarier. Many (women) may not have the stomach for it," added the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

'EVERYDAY HARASSMENT'

Indian poet and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai said she had no idea she could face prosecution when, emboldened by the global #MeToo movement in 2017, she posted about her experiences of harassment over a decade earlier.

The colleague she accused of harassing her in a car after offering her a lift brought criminal defamation charges against her, arguing the accusation was false.

"I had absolutely no idea about the defamation laws or that they could be used in this manner," Manimekalai said in an interview in the southern city of Chennai.

"The petition filed against me victim-shames, questions my motives and makes me out to be a problematic person, someone who should be avoided."

Several powerful men from the worlds of media, entertainment and the arts have faced fallout since India's #MeToo movement erupted in 2018.

But activists say more needs to be done to encourage women to come forward and the movement has had little impact in rural areas, where sex crimes often go unreported.

Lawyer John said one of the big takeaways from this week's verdict was that the court had acknowledged there may be many reasons why women do not speak up.

"Every day I lose," said Manimekalai. "From being referred to as 'that #MeToo girl' to doing the rounds of court, the entire process has drained me. It has become everyday harassment."