The acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani by a Delhi court in a criminal defamation case lodged by former Union minister M J Akbar in relation to the sexual harassment allegations leveled against him during the #MeToo movement of 2018 has protected and preserved the space for women who have found their voice in recent times to speak out about their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace
The acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani by a Delhi court in a criminal defamation case lodged by former Union minister M J Akbar in relation to the sexual harassment allegations leveled against him during the #MeToo movement of 2018 has protected and preserved the space for women who have found their voice in recent times to speak out about their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace.
A conviction in this case would have had disastrous consequences for the many courageous women who have come out with disturbing revelations about the extent to which a large number of professions fields in the country have been unsafe.
Be it the media, as in this case or any other domain, the reality that many women suffer in silence in the face of harassment, especially in the early stages of their career, has been brought to the fore by the #MeToo movement where women were able to found space and freedom to share their experiences, even if it was after many years.
The court found the testimony of Ramani and Ghazala Wahab, another journalist who testified in her defence, to be credible and detailed enough to question the reputation that Akbar, a former journalist and author, was so strenuously trying to uphold. Akbar was accused by several women journalists who came forward with allegations of harassment against the former editor.
A welcome feature of the judgment was that the court was receptive to Ramani’s claims and found them true.
The women’s struggle to be believed by society, to resist social stigma, to convince herself to recognise the abuse, to overcome the mental trauma and gain the confidence to expose the abuser have rightly found mention in the judgment.
Additional Metropolitan Magistrate, Ravindra Kumar Pandey has placed the case in the correct perspective by noting that, “The women 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 the dignity of women as guaranteed by the Indian constitution.”
It is unfortunate that criminal defamation still survives in the statute book, thanks to the 2016 Supreme court verdict upholding it. To Ramani’s credit, she didn’t balk at having to join a long legal fight.
The conversation over sexual harassment and women’s safety at the workplace has come a long way since Supreme Court framed the Visakha guidelines in 1997. Since, 2013, India and Sexual Harassment at workplaces (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act placing statutory responsibilities upon employers and a clearly defined penal provision criminalising sexual harassment (Section 354A) has come into force.
Yet, it is still a long, lonely path for women because the harasser is almost always a senior in the organisation enjoying great power and influence. Criminal prosecution is quicker and less expensive, making it a handy tool to silence one’s critics and detractors. The time has come to decriminalise defamation so that those who suffer injury to their reputation are left only with civil remedy.
The victory of Ramani is a beacon of hope for all those who suffered silently but vowed not to give up. Harvey Weinstein, a famous Hollywood producer who sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped many women, has been found guilty in two cases. Since then the #MeToo movement spread and became a global movement. The movement began with the idea to help women come forward and take action against their predators, and this victory is proof.
(The writer is a Chennai-based journalist. The views are personal. She can be contacted at email@example.com)