22 July 2023 7:35 AM GMT
The Delhi High Court on Friday directed news magazine Tehelka, its former editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal and two reporters to pay Rs. 2 crores damages to Major General MS Ahluwalia in a defamation suit filed by the latter in 2002. A story was carried by Tehelka in March 2001 depicting Ahluwalia as an alleged corrupt middleman in the defence deals relating to import of new defence...
The Delhi High Court on Friday directed news magazine Tehelka, its former editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal and two reporters to pay Rs. 2 crores damages to Major General MS Ahluwalia in a defamation suit filed by the latter in 2002.
A story was carried by Tehelka in March 2001 depicting Ahluwalia as an alleged corrupt middleman in the defence deals relating to import of new defence equipments.
Justice Neena Bansal Krishna observed that Ahluwalia’s reputation had suffered as he 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.
“The plaintiff in his testimony has deposed that he had served a Legal Notice Ex.PW1/P dated 27.08.2001 to the defendants seeking an apology but it met only with refusal. The apology as on day has become irrelevant as the plaintiff has already suffered the Court of Inquired and has already been punishment with severe displeasure qua his conduct which was held to be unbecoming of an Army Officer,” the court said.
It added: “…damages in the sum of Rs.2,00,00,000/- (Rupees Two Crores) 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 held Tehelka, Tejpal and the two reporters, who allegedly worked as undercover by representing themselves on behalf of a fictitious defence equipment firm based in London, liable for defamation.
“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 defendant, had refused to accept any bribe,” the court said.
Ahluwalia was also aggrieved by a video tape and a transcript alleging that a bribe of Rs.50,000 was paid to him by one of the reporters. Transcript of the video tapes was shown and released on ZEE TV news channel and Tehelka.com.
It was Ahluwalia’s case that the story was given wide publicity and was picked up by various TV channels as well as the print media nationally and internationally. The Indian Army also took a serious note of the telecasted video tape and ordered a Court of Inquiry against him.
Noting that the Court of Inquiry gave a clean chit to Ahluwalia and severe displeasure was awarded only because of his conduct of agreeing to meet with people of doubtful credentials, Justice Krishna said:
“It is a service discipline which was questioned and not the integrity or character of the plaintiff (Ahluwalia). To borrow the triple test ……this false statement about the plaintiff to his discredit, exposed him to hatred, ridicule, or contempt, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his office, professional or trade and consequently tended to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right thinking members of society.”
The court added: “The plaintiff was a man holding the position of Major General in the Army and was a man of repute. There cannot be worse defamation and disrepute to a person of integrity and honour than a false imputation of him having demanded and then accepted bribe of Rs. 50,000. There was wide publicity of this transcript which was admittedly put on the website of Tehelka.com, Defendant No. 1. and it continues to remain on their website.”
The court also said that though the aim and objective may have been in public good, a defence which was taken by Tehelka, it added that the same does not give any right to any agency to create or attribute false statements to the plaintiff merely to create sensationalization amongst the general public.
“The objective may have been public good, but from the manner in which the publication has been made by defendant No.1 to 4, it is abundantly clear that it was not a true reporting of the incident. The comments have been added by defendant No.3, which is complete falsehood to his very own knowledge as can be discerned from the cross examination of DW1. It does not require any imagination to understand the wide ramifications of alleging corruption against a senior Army Officer and also the consequences thereto,” the court said.
The court however said that Ahluwalia failed to prove any act of defamation on the part of Zee Telefilm Limited, its former Chairman Subhash Chandra and former Chief Executive Officer Sandeep Goyal.
ZEE Telefilms Limited, it’s Chairman, Dr Subhash Chandra and the then CEO of Zee Telefilms were represented by Trust Legal Advocates and Consultants through a team led by Mr Sudhir Mishra, Founder & Managing Partner and Partner Petal Chandhok, assisted by Associate Partner Rupali Gupta and Associate Mimansi Sethi. The arguments on behalf of Zee Telefilms were led by Senior Advocate, Mr. Jayant Mehta as briefed by Trust Legal.
Title: MAJOR GENERAL M.S. AHLUWALIA v. M/S TEHELKA.COM & Ors.
Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (Del) 616
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