The Supreme Court came down heavily on Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa on Wednesday for filing scores of defamation cases against activists and political opponents, saying the AIADMK chief was using the law to settle personal scores.
The top court observed Tamil Nadu was the only state that used the government machinery to fight defamation cases after a petition alleged the Jayalalithaa administration was misusing the law.
“You can’t slap defamation cases on people for reporting on the chief minister’s health condition,” the apex court said.
“As a public figure, you (Jayalalithaa) must face criticism. You fight on a personal level.”
In the last five years, Tamil Nadu has filed 213 defamation cases against political opponents and media houses for “derogatory statements” against Jayalalithaa.
Reporting on the CM’s vacations, criticising her government for water scarcity or not fulfilling poll promises have all been termed derogatory.
This is the second time in two months that the SC has criticised the state government for the flurry of defamation cases. In July, the apex court observed that such defamation cases caused a “chilling effect” on free speech and advocated tolerance.
Opponents accuse Jayalalithaa of silencing critics and harassing them through such cases as an accused is expected to be present at every hearing. Arrest orders can be issued for missing a court date.
India is one of the few countries with both civil and criminal defamation proceedings. Punishment can vary from up to two years in prison or a fine or both.
Jayalalithaa is serving a sixth term as the chief minister after she was returned to office in May.
Fifty-five of the cases are against media, Tamil Nadu government’s affidavit says. But, most of the ruling AIADMK’s anger is directed at arch rival DMK, which faces 85 cases. For decades, the two parties have taken turns to rule the state and are bitter rivals.
Partner-turned-foe DMDK has 48 cases against it. Of these, 28 are against its leader Vijayakanth, a former actor who had several fiery exchanges with Jayalalithaa.
BJP leader Subramanian Swamy faces five cases for tweets against the Jayalalithaa government. The PMK has nine cases and the Congress seven.
The Jaya government seems to be getting increasingly upset with its critics. It lodged 120 defamation cases between 2002 and 2006. Before it, the DMK government filed 40 cases during its five years in office beginning 2006.
Defamation, described as a “reasonable restriction” on free speech in Constitution, has been a topic of debate. Free speech advocates see it as a tool to silence critics and suppress dissent.
In May last, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of criminal defamation law -- Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code that prescribes two-year jail term or fine or both for damaging someone’s reputation.