Keeping silent wouldn't have been the right thing to do, Priya Ramani tells Court; concludes testimony in MJ Akbar defamation case


Sep 9: On 9 September 2019, the Court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Samar Vishal assembled to hear the defamation case brought by former Union Minister MJ Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani. Two days ago, the court had heard Ramani testify with her account of the series of events that transpired in 1993 when Akbar had allegedly asked her to come up to his room at a Mumbai hotel for a job interview. The proceedings were adjourned for the day and the remaining part of Ramani's deposition was to be recorded on Monday.
"I spoke the truth when I disclosed my experience of my first job interview in the Vogue magazine and my tweets," began Ramani adding that it is important for women to speak up about sexual harassment at the workplace. "Many of us are brought up to believe that silence is a virtue," she said.
"In all my disclosures, I spoke the truth in the public interest and the public good. It was my hope that the disclosures in the #MeToo movement would empower women to speak up and to better understand their rights at the workplace."
She further added that this defamation case has come at a "great personal cost" to her and stressed on the fact that it's not easy for any woman to make such disclosures out in the public. "I have nothing to gain from it. I am a well regarded, respected journalist. I live a quiet life with my family in Bangalore."
"By keeping silent, I could have avoided the subsequent targeting but that would not have been the right thing to do," Ramani concluded.
After Ramani's testimony was recorded, the court began with the cross-examination proceedings. Senior advocate Geeta Luthra, who represents Akbar, asked Ramani about her favourite journalists and the magazines/ newspapers she read while she was studying [journalism], the organisations she had worked at, and the stories she had reported on during this time.
Luthra also asked Ramani about the time she finished her [media] course and inquired about the publications she applied to for jobs upon finishing her studies. "I finished my course in June 1993. I next did a fellowship at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and then I returned to Philadelphia," Ramani answered. She further added: I returned to Bombay [later] in 1993. In those days there were not many job opportunities. I heard that TOI paid journalists Rs 1,000 and made them trainees no matter what their educational qualifications were. Someone at the Xavier's Institute of Communications told me that The Asian Age was hiring and so I applied there first."
To this, advocate Luthra put to Ramani that her "so-called dream of becoming a journalist was not contingent on being hired by The Asian Age." Ramani said: "It was not a 'so-called dream'. Yes, The Asian Age was a good opportunity to realise this dream." Luthra further intervened asking whether Ramani would have stopped [looking for jobs] had there been no vacancy at that time in The Asian Age, to which Ramani responded with a "no". Senior advocate Rebecca John, Ramani's counsel, objected to this question as being hypothetical and speculative.
Luthra also questioned the veracity of Ramani's claims regarding her experience with Akbar: "I put to you that the reason you took up the job at The Asian Age was that no such interview in the circumstances alleged by you ever happened." "I put to you that this is the reason why you never applied to any other publication." "I put to you that more than two decades later you have maliciously and intentionally concocted this story to damage Mr Akbar's reputation." "I put to you that you published a piece of false news [her tweets]." Through each of these questions, Ramani maintained her stand: "It is incorrect."
Luthra then questioned Ramani as to why she had termed it [#MeToo allegation against Akbar] as a "big victory" (for the #MeToo movement). Ramani responded saying that it indeed was a "big victory" and that her tweet was in response to a Firstpost article/tweet.
Luthra objected to Ramani answering her questions in more than a "yes/no" to which the judge intervened saying: "Let me tell you, if we don't allow her to answer, the whole trial would be vitiated."
After the court reassembled for the post-lunch session, Luthra began questioning Ramani on her knowledge of the criminal law of India and that whether she was aware of the fact that the IPC always had a provision for sexual harassment since its enactment. Ramani responded saying she wasn't aware of the details of the IPC provisions.
"Are you aware that in 2012, there was a bill in the Parliament with respect to the prevention of sexual harassment of women at the workplace? I put to you that a redressal mechanism for sexual harassment existed prior to 2013 also under the Indian law," said Luthra.
Ramani replied: "I am aware. The anti-sexual harassment law came into effect in 2013. I am not aware of other redressal mechanisms prior to Vishakha. I am aware of the Vishakha case and the sexual harassment law passed in 2013."
Ramani was later asked whether or not she knew of allegations of sexual harassment against men in the workplace in 2013 and that there was a "movement of people so-called having 'found their voice' and speaking up in 2013. "Many women spoke up after the Nirbhaya case. It may have been described as finding their voice in media reports," replied Ramani.
She was also asked to verify an article titled 'Sorry Boss, we found our voice' she'd written in 2013 for Mint. While initially, Ramani wasn't sure about it but when a copy of the article was produced, she agreed to have written it and added, "It is correct that in November 2013, when I wrote that article I had not made any allegations against Mr Akbar."
Luthra pointed out that Akbar became a member of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in 2014 and a minister in 2016. Ramani's Vogue article was published in 2013. "I put to you that you made these allegations against Mr Akbar for the first time only in 2018." Ramani agreed that she did name him only in 2018 but also added that "it is wrong to suggest" that she had "made these allegations against Mr Akbar maliciously, deliberately, in bad faith to malign Mr Akbar."
Furthering the cross-examination procedure, Luthra questioned Ramani saying according to her 2013 article (in the Vogue magazine) there were "plenty of opportunities and platforms to speak out against any allegations of sexual harassment prior to 2018." Ramani denied this and said, "It is wrong to suggest that I did not make any allegations against Mr Akbar prior to 2013 as no such incident ever happened."
Alluding to the above-mentioned Vogue article, Luthra asked Ramani that the word "you" in the first paragraph of the article has been used as a reference to Akbar. Ramani agreed to this saying she'd already mentioned this before. However, she added that it was wrong to suggest that nowhere in her tweet or article she has made any "clarification or explanation that the Vogue article made any distinction between allegations against Mr Akbar and others," which the court recorded. "It is wrong to suggest that I have an artificial distinction for purposes of creating a false defence in this defamation case. It is wrong to suggest that the article and tweets are referring entirely to Mr MJ Akbar."
"It is wrong to suggest that my tweets and article lowered the reputation of Mr Akbar in the estimation of the general public and right-thinking members of society," she clarifies.
The court proceedings were adjourned for the day and the matter will be taken up next on Thursday, 24 October.