Tehelka had published an “exposure” in 2001 claiming that Ahluwalia was allegedly involved in corruption in defense deals.
The retired Army officer told the court that he had suffered a “loss of reputation” due to the “dive” carried out by the news portal.
Scar to reputation: Delhi HC
Judge Neena Bansal Krishna, in deciding the lawsuit, noted that the plaintiff’s reputation has suffered as he not only faced a “lowering of estimate in the public eye” but his character was also maligned with serious allegations of corruption “which no subsequent reputation can repair or cure.”
Stating that there could not be a more flagrant case of causing serious damage to the reputation of an honest army officer, the court further noted that a lot of time has passed and the plaintiff has already lived in a bad name for more than 23 years.
Given the enormity of the nature of the libel, an apology at this stage is not only inadequate but meaningless, the court said.
“The truth is considered the best vindication against slander, as Abraham Lincoln wisely quoted. However, the truth lacks the potency to restore one’s lost reputation in the eyes of a society that is always quick to judge. The sad fact is that lost wealth can always be recovered; however, the scar of one’s reputation once etched on the soul produces nothing but sadness, even if millions are awarded in reparation,” the court said.
In the 48-page verdict, the court rejected the defendants’ defense of “truth”, “public good” and “good faith” and said there could be no worse defamation of a person of integrity than a “false accusation of having demanded and then accepted a bribe of Rs 50,000”.
According to the lawsuit, Tarun Tejpal, owner of Tehelka.Com, was responsible for managing the publication of news/articles on the news portal.
The report alleged that when an undercover journalist approached Ahluwalia posing as a defense contractor, the officer demanded Rs 10 lakh and a bottle of Blue Label whiskey as a bribe for any defense deal. Furthermore, he alleged that Ahluwalia had accepted a token bribe of Rs 50,000.
In the lawsuit, the Army official claimed that the alleged tape containing the conversation between him and the reporter had been altered and doctored to manipulate the recording and that selective portions had been removed and editorial comments added that were not supported by facts.
The Army also took serious note of the videotape broadcast on television and ordered an Investigative Court on this matter. The plaintiff was summoned to the Court of Instruction and his military reputation and his honor were tarnished and placed under a cloud of suspicion, according to the lawsuit. Although no misconduct against the actor was proven, the Army issued “serious displeasure” against him.
However, the court said that the claimant was unable to prove any act of defamation by Zee Telefilm Ltd and its officials in airing the story in question following a settlement with the news portal.
(With contributions from agencies)