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A win for environment and media: Mumbai court acquits journalists as UPL loses 22-year-old case

Like some places, Vapi, an industrial hub in Gujarat, bordering Maharashtra, is recognisable by its smells and its polluted colourful nallahs full of untreated effluents. Many years ago, it used to be identified by an unmistakable stench and even now as you cross the river Daman Ganga, the air tells you that there is more than water in that river. Most people passed by and held their noses but one photo-journalist did more than that. Shailendra Yashwant reported on the pollution in Vapi in an article, “Toxic Wastes Choke Vapi’s Lifeline”, for Sanctuary Features which was published in Newstime on 11 July, 1995.

For that public service, Yashwant and the chief editor of Newstime, Ramoji Rao, its owners and publishers, and Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Features who commissioned the article, faced trial for defamation charges which concluded only last month, a good 22 years after the case was filed by United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) in 1996. The company claimed that the “defamatory” article was published with the “common intention” of affecting its business and causing it damage as well as tarnishing the reputation of its directors. Besides, it contended that the article contained “several false statements, some of which are defamatory per se and others [are] containing defamatory innuendos.”

 A win for environment and media: Mumbai court acquits journalists as UPL loses 22-year-old case

File image of the metropolitan magistrate court in Mumbai. Reuters/Punit Paranjpe

However, metropolitan magistrate KG Paldewar concluded on 4 August, that the article was published after “due care and attention”, without malice, in good faith for the public good. “The said article in good faith conveys for the public good a caution on the adverse environmental impacts by the import of such obsolete technology and its operation in the country. Hence, the publication of [the] article is for public good in the interest of public.” He acquitted all the accused in the case and said that the article in question “speaks of the truth which has been written by his [the journalist’s] own study, research and from the material collected.”

The judge also pointed out in his order that the case of the complainant relating to financial loss to the company is contrary to the evidence.

Yashwant wrote about the high levels of pollution and poor handling of untreated waste in the chemical industrial units at Vapi and how toxic waste was dumped into the river Daman Ganga. At that time United Phosphorus had imported a second-hand chloralkali plant from Norway, and Greenpeace had done a report on this which was referred to in the article. The plant which made toxic chemicals, was closed in Norway and it was “dumped” into India, Greenpeace had said.

It was only in 2011 and 2013 that Vapi was notified as a critically polluted area by the ministry of environment and forests and is a toxic hotspot with little regulation. In the course of the trial, the court noted that there was poor law enforcement of environmental rules. The final order pointed out that that it is for the complainant to prove the case beyond all reasonable doubt. After scrutinising the evidence and documents, it is crystal clear, the order said that the article by Yashwant “is not defamatory but it is disclosure of [the] true facts of the pollution.” Based on the evidence of two witnesses, the order said it was “apparently clear that UPL was discharging non-treated toxic effluent through an illegal outlet which finally discharged the effluent in river Daman Ganga.” The river is the only river in Vapi and is a lifeline to the residents, since it’s the only source of the water.

In the current atmosphere where media freedom is sought to be curtailed, the order comes as a boost especially for environmental causes, since it also criticises the bypassing of the law, even as pollution is not controlled by government bodies meant for that purpose. In a statement, Sahgal, said: "This is not a victory for three journalists, it is a victory for democracy and freedom of speech. It is also a clarion call to policy makers to recognise that the implementation of environmental laws amounts to the protection of the life of every Indian citizen, as defined by the sacred Constitution of India."

The order said that it is the function of the press to disseminate news from as many different sources and with as many different facts and colours as possible. A citizen is entirely dependent on the press for the quality, proportion and extension of his news supply. The court said the degradation of the environment “is nothing but an inaction and lapse on the part of Governmental agencies… ”

“Despite repeated directions by the Hon'ble Apex Court and by the Hon'ble High Courts, the officers and Government machinery including GPCB (Gujarat Pollution Control Board) and GIDC (Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation) have been negligent in discharge of their statutory duties. This inaction by them is nothing but a connivance with such industrialist for which no other direct evidence is required. One can read between two lines about the involvement of these officers. It is well substantiated by the above evidence and case laws; GPCB. is guilty of total inaction in taking effective steps for protecting or improving the environment. Thus, it is not difficult to get permission from GPCB- [the] same in reflected in the Article as 'Minor Irritant'," the order said.

The article had said that permissions were a “minor irritant” as they were obtained easily from the authorities.

Besides, the court asked the complainant to revisit its contention that GPCB has not lodged any prosecution and the company has never been prosecuted. “However, in the light of documents of GPCB and testimony of witnesses … it is not a matter of honour to the complainant but it is a matter of serious concern to rethink over it”.

Many documents produced in the case from the GPCB and evidence of various witnesses indicated that there was extensive pollution in Vapi and effluents were being discharged without being treated. The court noted that the contention of the article was substantiated by the documents of GPCB and testimony of its officials.

The order will come as a major support to journalists increasingly being accused of defamation with companies filing Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits. In a statement, senior advocate Raj Panjwani, counsel for the accused journalists, said, “Justice has prevailed. This case has set a precedent for freedom of Press. In India, both libel and slander are criminal offences under its Penal Code and enables an aggrieved person to file a criminal case against the person accusing him/her. Invariably, corporations abuse this law by filing Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits such as this case, to intimidate environmental watchdogs and prevent them from standing up courageously to challenge polluting corporations. SLAPP suits are an abuse of judicial process, which need to be thwarted and weeded out at the threshold from the pure stream of justice.”

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Updated Date: Sep 24, 2018 16:20:33 IST