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Editor arrested in Tamil Nadu state on charges of defamation

IPI warns about the danger of defamation as a criminal offence

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 27 OCTOBER 2009 - A.S. Mani, editor of the Tamil magazine Naveena Netrikan in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, was arrested on Sunday, 25 October by police on criminal charges of defamation and remanded to judicial custody by a court in the city of Madurai.

"The arrest of A.S. Mani shows the extent to which criminal defamation can effectively silence the media's ability to report on issues of public concern," said IPI Director David Dadge. "If journalists fear for their liberty whenever exposing corruption, they will naturally seek to avoid the subject. As a result, India - through its legal system - is maintaining a form of indirect censorship that inhibits one of the most powerful instruments in the fight against corruption."

The arrest followed a complaint made by a local contractor of an allegedly defamatory article published in Naveena Netrikan. According to local news reports, the article accused the plaintiff, a local contractor identified only as Mr. Suresh, and Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers, M.K. Azhagiri, of corruption in the process of awarding major road contracts. Successful bidders allegedly had to hand over a percentage as commission before receiving the contracts. Similarly, the postings of police and revenue officers in most government departments in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu were made only after they were cleared by Mr. Suresh, Naveena Netrikan reported.

Defamation is a criminal offence in India, but it is non-cognizable and bailable. Arrests for defamation are highly unusual.

Police not only charged Mani with criminal defamation under Section 502 of the Indian Penal Code (printing and distributing defamatory material), but also with more serious offences, including under Section 153A (1), promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony; Section 503, criminal intimidation; and Section 505, statement causing fear or alarm among the public. Offences under both Section 153A and Section 505 are treated as more serious offences, being cognizable and non-bailable.

"What could have been a civil defamation case for damages was sought to be treated as a criminal matter," IPI Board Member N. Ravi, Editor of The Hindu, told IPI in an e-mail message. "By charging Mr. Mani under these more stringent but clearly non-applicable sections, the state government has been able to arrest him and get him remanded to judicial custody. Thus the intention to harass using the full force of the law is very clear."

Following his arrest, Mani filed a petition stating that he had been harassed in Madurai central prison; he was therefore taken to Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai.

Earlier this month, police in Tamil Nadu arrested another editor in connection with an article allegedly insulting an actor. On 8 October, B. Lenin, news editor of the Tamil daily, Dinamalar, was arrested under Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Women Harassment (prevention) Act on the basis of a complaint filed by the general secretary of the South India Film Artistes Association. Lenin was released on bail two days after the arrest.

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