I am a little surprised by the reaction of the Twitterati to the case involving Karti Chidambaram , the finance minister’s son, and Ravi Srinivasan, a businessman. Surprised because it is the Twiterrati that has argued that new-age media, such as Twitter, allows almost everyone to disseminate news and, potentially, reach an audience as big as that reached by a newspaper or a TV channel. Accepting that—and this writer does, wholeheartedly—doesn’t a tweet then become the equivalent of a story? And shouldn’t the same rules that apply to stories carried by newspapers, news websites and television channels also apply to it?
Indeed, Twitter, as everyone who has more than two followers claims, is a medium, and there’s no such thing as a personal comment on it. Had Srinivasan expressed his view about Chidambaram in a private offline conversation with a friend, it would have been just that—a personal comment. Once he tweeted it, potentially for the world to see (although he had only 16 followers at the time), the comment became the equivalent of a story. And anyone who believes he or she or a company has been defamed or unfairly disparaged in a story has a right to legal recourse. Indeed, as my own experience indicates, even accurate news stories can provoke legal action (and then there is a so-called process of discovery).
To be sure, most people on Twitter seem to believe (and I base this on their tweets) that truth is an absolute defence against defamation suits. It is (especially if it is related to public interest), but it still needs to be proved. I am not sure Srinivasan can prove his allegation that Chidambaram has amassed “more wealth than Vadra”, a reference to Robert Vadra , the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was recently in the eye of a storm regarding his land deals with real estate company DLF Ltd.
Some of Srinivasan’s online supporters and the man himself have also loosely referred to freedom of speech, a constitutional right of every citizen. According to Article 19(2) of the country’s Constitution, both defamation and a comment that may hurt India’s diplomatic relations with another country are exceptions to this right.
Irrespective of the magnitude of his reach (through his insignificant number of followers) it can be argued that Srinivasan sought to share and broadcast information, much like a journalist would. And if he wanted to behave like a journalist, it is only fair that the same laws that apply to one also apply to him.
That said, my sympathies are with the businessman from Puducherry for two reasons.
One, he was booked under Section 66A of the new IT Act, which seeks to act against people for sending out offensive messages electronically. This is a sweeping law, and a highly subjective one in terms of interpretation. Pranesh Prakash , programme manager at Bangalore’s Centre for Internet and Society (and one of the clearest thinkers in this area) said in a 2 November story in Mint that “the law has to be more specific in its definition of what is offensive.” That apart, Section 66A, some experts say (and I agree), infringes on Article 19 of the Constitution that provides the freedom of speech and expression.
Two, India’s defamation regulations, listed in Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, are themselves retrograde. In the US, for instance, public figures who claim they have been defamed need to prove this (the onus is not on the person who has made the comments). That’s not the case in India.