The latest hearing on the Bharatiya Janata Party leader MJ Akbar’s defamation suit against the journalist Priya Ramani on Wednesday was marked by courtroom drama. In her testimony before Additional Metropolitan Magistrate, Delhi, Vishal Pahuja on Tuesday, Ghazala Wahab, a key witness, had recalled how she was molested by Akbar when he was her editor at the Asian Age newspaper in the 1990s.
When the Me Too movement swept India late last year, Ramani publicly accused Akbar of sexually harassing her during a job interview. The former editor responded by filing a defamation suit against her in October 2018.
On Wednesday, Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra entered the courtroom and immediately asked to speak privately with the judge, along with Ramani’s counsel Rebecca John.
Pahuja asked whether the matter was so serious that it needed to be discussed privately. When Luthra insisted, the judge led her and John into his chamber. It turned out that Luthra had a complaint against a report on Wahab’s testimony published on The Wire. Specifically, she took issue with the report describing the lawyer, her daughter and a few associates laughing during the proceedings. “Notably, Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra and her team laughed among themselves while Wahab was narrating her ordeal to a packed courtroom,” states the report written by Anoo Bhuyan.
It adds that Luthra’s lawyer daughter, who is assisting her in the case, “began laughing as Wahab described this. Throughout Wahab’s testimony, she and many of the interns kept turning to each other and laughing, sometimes covering their mouths with their books.”
Returning to the courtroom, the judge asked the journalists covering the case not to make personal comments about the lawyers, or their associates, or witnesses in their dispatches. He also asked, without taking names, that whichever reporter had made such comments in their article yesterday must remove them and not do so in future.
Then began Wahab’s cross-examination.
“Are you aware that IPC has had a provision of sexual harassment since its enactment in 1960?” Luthra asked, meaning the Indian Penal Code.
Wahab replied in the negative.
“Are you aware that in August 1997, the Supreme Court pronounced the Vishaka versus State of Rajasthan judgement which was widely reported by newspapers then?”
“Yes, I remember it as a news item as at that time I was working at Asian Age.”
“Are you aware it deals with sexual harassment at the workplace?”
“Yes, I was aware that it was about sexual harassment. However, I did not know what implications it would have at the workplace.”
“Are you aware as a journalist that in 2013 a Bill was introduced on sexual harassment of women at workplace?”
“Yes, I’m aware.”
At this point, the lawyer summed up Wahab’s testimony: that her tweet accusing Akbar of harassing her and her article on The Wire detailing her ordeal were accurate, and that she was not motivated by a desire to gain publicity or to damage Akbar’s political career.
The hearing ended, and the judge asked everyone to leave the courtroom except Luthra, John, “and the reporter who made a personal comment in yesterday’s report”, referring to Bhuyan of The Wire. But since the judge hadn’t asked her by name, Bhuyan left the courtroom along with the other reporters. She was called back in, however. She did not go in alone, the other journalists followed her. They included Nidhi Razdan, Namita Bhandare and Javed Ansari, all of whom were there to show their support for Ramani.
The judge told all the reporters not to make personal comments in their reports. Pahuja was addressing all the reporters present, without taking anybody’s name. Then, Bhuyan asked, “Sir, it would be helpful for us if you could explain what you mean by personal comments.”
“You know what I mean,” Pahuja replied, “and please don’t repeat it in future.”
“Are you talking about that particular part where I mention that Luthra and her peers were laughing?” Bhuyan asked.
Pahuja replied in the affirmative.
Outside, John and Luthra were discussing the issue. Bhuyan joined them and soon got into an argument with Luthra’s daughter Shivani, who accused the reporter of making defamatory remarks against her.
“Is it not true? Are you not her daughter,” Bhuyan retorted, pointing towards Luthra.
Razdan chipped in, “How can someone laugh in a case of sexual harassment?”
At this, the assembled journalist and lawyers dispersed.
The next hearing is scheduled for January 16 next year.