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TV station handed down excessively punitive fine for libel

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 18 November 2011 - Indian television channel Times Now has been handed down a fine of Rs. 1 billion (approx. 15 million euros) for mistakenly showing the picture of the wrong person during a news bulletin. As the television station appealed against the verdict, the court ruled that the appeal would be heard only after Times Now had deposited Rs. 200 million (approx. 3 million euros) in court and provided a bank guarantee for the remaining amount.

IPI Board Member, N. Ravi, Director of The Hindu, told IPI that in September 2008 Times Now ran a story in its news programme about a fund controversy involving some high court judges. While mentioning the name of a judge of the Calcutta High Court, P. K. Samantha, it inadvertently displayed the picture of a retired Supreme Court judge and former Chairman of the Press Council of India, P. B. Sawant, for 15 seconds. The picture was not shown in the subsequent news bulletins. Furthermore, Times Now apologised to Justice Sawant, and ran an apology for five continuous days on the channel.

Nevertheless, in November 2008 Justice Sawant filed a defamation suit against Times Now in the district court of Pune and in early October 2011 he was awarded Rs. 1000 million (approx. 15 million euros) in exemplary damages.

When Times Now appealed against the order in the Bombay High Court, it was asked to deposit Rs. 200 million (approx 3 million euros) immediately and provide a bank guarantee for the remaining amount of Rs. 800 million (approx 12 million euros) before its appeal would be heard. On further appeal, the Supreme Court let this order stand, pending appeal, with the result that Times Now is obliged to comply with this order following the grossly aberrant award.

"An inadvertent slip of this nature can hardly be construed as defamatory and the award of punitive damages in a case such as this lacking in malice is wholly unwarranted," N. Ravi told IPI. "Indeed, considering the subsequent correction and apology, there should have been no question at all of any punitive or exemplary damages.

"It is shocking that the court should award damages of this magnitude that is so wholly out of line with the general quantum of damages awarded by the courts in the country."

"This is an appalling ruling, in particular considering the global trend, in democratic countries, towards placing a cap on damages awarded for defamation," said IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie. "In the UK, the recent campaign that eventually led to a reform of UK libel law, called for capping damages at £10,000 (approx. 12.000 euros), noting that excessive damages traditionally awarded for libel had led to abuse of that specific law for the purpose of personal economic advantage."

Press freedom advocates have often warned about the danger that disproportionately high damages awards place such an economic burden on media outlets that their survival is seriously threatened as a consequence.

"It is obvious that an award of damages of this magnitude will have a chilling effect on the operations of the media in the country, "N. Ravi told IPI. "The judiciary has been protecting the freedom of expression of the media, writers and creative artists, and has been expanding the boundaries of free speech as well. It is ironic that a retired Supreme Court judge should have initiated such an action and that the higher judiciary should have allowed the initial judicial aberration to continue."

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