MJ Akbar-Priya Ramani defamation case: Defense counsel team's conduct at recent hearing proves women battle patriarchy in courtrooms too
Geeta Luthra and her team, who are representing MJ Akbar in his defamation case against Priya Ramani, reportedly mocked Ghazala Wahab when she testified against Akbar and detailed the harassment she faced at his hands. Ironically, during the early days of the trial, Luthra had protested against murmurs or laughs that erupted when Akbar made his statement.
When Ghazala Wahab was testifying against MJ Akbar in court, there was reportedly a snigger from the defense counsel’s bench.
Wahab’s mocking at the hands of Luthra’s team was widely reported in the media. The reports that emerged are examples of descriptive, who-said-what journalism.
Trials of this kind must be open to the public and reporters, who should be allowed to reproduce court proceedings verbatim – including the conduct of the lawyers.
On 11 December at court 203, Rouse Avenue, journalist Ghazala Wahab recalled an incident from 1997 as part of her testimony in the Priya Ramani v MJ Akbar case, where veteran journalist and former union minister Akbar had allegedly sexually harassed her when she worked at Asian Age as a cub reporter. As she narrated her ordeal in detail – Akbar had called her into his room on the pretext of finding a word in the dictionary, which he had allegedly placed on a low table and Wahab had to squat on the floor to look through the dictionary, allowing Akbar to allegedly accost her without warning – there was reportedly a snigger from the defense counsel’s bench.
One of the assistants of Geeta Luthra, Akbar’s lawyer, was laughing at her testimony. “Throughout Wahab’s testimony, she and many of the interns kept turning to each other and laughing, sometimes covering their mouths with their books,” a report in The Wire said.
Wahab continued to narrate her story undaunted, despite the constant conversation that Luthra reportedly kept up with her team members the whole while. When Wahab spoke of the angst she experienced when a woman editor she approached allegedly refused to help her and her growing distress at being accosted again by Akbar the next day, Luthra reportedly reacted – by laughing out loud.
When Wahab recounted how she quit her job and took a train back home, Luthra jeered, saying, “Train aur bogie number bhi bata do (Tell us about the train and coach number too),” according to a Newslaundry report.
Wahab’s mocking at the hands of Luthra’s team was widely reported in the media; the reports that emerged are examples of descriptive, who-said-what journalism. None of these reports editorialised the conduct of the defense counsels.
Luthra asked additional chief metropolitan magistrate Vishal Pahuja, who is hearing the defamation case filed by Akbar against his former colleague Priya Ramani, to pass an order to delete comments about her and her team during the testimony from media reports.
“It is not my place to say what is right and what is wrong, I have always strived to work for a true sense of fairness. That is what makes me tick,” Luthra has said in the past, in an interview to The Print. Her penchant for fairness, however, seems somewhat lopsided. During the early days of the trial, Luthra had protested against murmurs or laughs that erupted when Akbar made his statement. In another hearing, she had also asked the judge to censure journalists from tweeting about the case. In the latest hearing, she wanted the judge to force journalists not to report about her team laughing during the hearing.
Pahuja declined to pass an order – and rightly so – adding that Luthra and her team could file a formal application if they wished to. He also told reporters in the courtroom that while he can’t stop them from doing their job, they should be careful while reporting on lawyers. He later summoned The Wire’s reporter to his chambers and repeated this request. But when the reporter asked Judge Pahuja to define what constitutes "personal remarks", no explanation was allegedly offered.
The judge asked them to maintain the decorum of the court. "I am restraining myself from commenting on media reporting. It is your right... But you should refrain from commenting personally either on the lawyers or their team in the case,” Pahuja had said. He also asked The Wire’s reporter to give an undertaking to the court at the end of the day’s hearing, and to remove those comments from her article that the defense counsel found offensive. He did not, however, pull up Luthra and her team for mocking and humiliating Wahab.
At the end of the hearing, an argument broke out between the two teams of lawyers and journalists, with the defense lawyers claiming that the allegations made against them in the article were false. Other journalists came forward in support of the reporter, asserting that it was disrespectful to laugh while a woman was narrating her experience of sexual harassment.
The Ramani v Akbar case is easily one among India’s biggest to have come out of the #MeToo movement. Sixteen women have lent their voice to Ramani’s complaint against Akbar. It is also a case that is led by women – for and against.
Luthra’s client held his ministerial position until last October when he stepped down after the litany of sexual misconduct complaints against him surfaced. Out of the 16 women who detailed his sexual misconduct, Akbar only sued Ramani for defamation.
What happened in court on 11 December is an illustrative example of how female survivors of harassment and abuse are humiliated and mocked – even in spaces like courtrooms. Before the survivor can go to court, she must battle humiliation at the hands of first responders, subsequent interrogators, medical examiners and even family members – all of which is meant to pressure her to withdraw her testimony. Is it any wonder then that nearly 99.1 percent of sexual violence cases go unreported?
This development in the Ramani v Akbar case lays bare three things – that we need a clear definition of what constitutes “personal remarks” that reporters must guard against; that lawyers should be pulled up for behaving in this manner, especially in the context of cases of sexual harassment and abuse; and that trials of this kind must be open to the public and reporters, who should be allowed to reproduce court proceedings verbatim, including the conduct of the lawyers. That is the only way to ensure that the women who were courageous enough to speak up are not silenced.
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