Delhi HC dismisses Tehelka review plea, upholds order to pay Rs 2 cr as damages

On 13 March 2001, the news portal had reported on an alleged defence equipment procurement scam, naming major-general MS Ahluwalia, who sued for defamation

Delhi High Court has said there was no merit in the plea filed by Tehelka co-founder and journalist Aniruddha Bahal (photo: IANS)
Delhi High Court has said there was no merit in the plea filed by Tehelka co-founder and journalist Aniruddha Bahal (photo: IANS)


Delhi High Court has dismissed a plea by seeking review of an order directing it to pay Rs 2 crore to an Indian army officer for the loss of reputation suffered by him on account of a 2001 exposé by the news portal alleging his involvement in corruption in defence procurements.

Justice Neena Bansal Krishna said there was no merit in the plea, filed by Tehelka co-founder and journalist Aniruddha Bahal, as "there is no error apparent on the face of record" or a "mistake which can be corrected within the ambit of review".

"The review application is without merit and is hereby dismissed," the court ruled in an order passed earlier this month.

On 13 March 2001, the portal had carried a story alleging corruption in defence deals relating to import of new defence equipment.

In a lawsuit, major-general MS Ahluwalia claimed he was defamed in the story 'Operation West End', as it was wrongly broadcast and reported that he had accepted bribes.

On 21 July this year, Justice Krishna had directed the portal, its owner M/S Buffalo Communications, its proprietor Tarun Tejpal, and the two reporters who had written the story, Bahal and Mathew Samuel, to pay Rs 2 crore to the plaintiff.

Seeking review, the applicants contended that the judgment suffered from an error which needed to be corrected as there was "nothing factually incorrect" in the transcript which was the basis of successful prosecution of a number of accused by the CBI.

They said the plaintiff did not place on record the video clip of the operation as aired on television or provide copies of the transcript as per the law.

The court rejected the contentions and observed that a "publication would be defamatory if not made in 'good faith for the cause of public good' and a 'fair comment' cannot justify a statement which is untrue".

"Defamation law is not to be used to gag, silence, suppress and subjugate the press and the media," it, however, noted.

The court said the entire case of the plaintiff did not rest on the authenticity of the sting operation but only on the "editorial comments" inserted by Bahal to the transcript of the recording.

It stated, "The fact remains that in the present case, respondent No. 1/plaintiff was exonerated by the Army Court of Enquiry and was only awarded with 'Severe displeasure' on account of his conduct which was found to be unbecoming of an Army Officer and not because of acceptance of any money as was implied in the 'Editorial Comments'."

In his order passed on the lawsuit in July, Justice Krishna had said there can't be a more blatant case of causing serious harm to the reputation of an honest army officer, adding an apology after 23 years of publication was "not only inadequate but is meaningless".

The court had, however, said the plaintiff was not able to prove any act of defamation on the part of Zee Telefilms Ltd and its officials for telecasting the story in question following an arrangement with the news portal.

It had observed that the plaintiff not only faced lowering of estimation in the eyes of the public, but his character was also maligned by serious allegations of corruption, which "no subsequent refutation can redress or heal".

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