In social media age, desecration of public figure's reputation became child's play: Delhi HC

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New Delhi (India), July 13 (ANI): In the age of social media, desecration of the reputation of a public figure has become child's play, said Delhi High Court on Tuesday while directing RTI activist Saket Gokhale to delete all tweets against former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Lakshmi Puri.

The court noted that it was unable to find, prima facie, even a scintilla of impropriety, or lack of transparency, either in the purchase of the apartment, or in the disclosures made to the statutory authorities in that regard, either by the plaintiff Lakshmi Puri or by her husband.

"I have meticulously gone through both the affidavits, along with the annexures thereto, and am, prima facie, satisfied that there has been complete disclosure regarding the purchase of the Swiss Apartment, its value, as well as the loans taken from the UBS Bank for the purchase. I am unable to find, prima facie, even a scintilla of impropriety, or lack of transparency, either in the purchase of the apartment, or in the disclosures made to the statutory authorities in that regard, either by the plaintiff (Lakshmi Puri) or by her husband," the court said.

The Delhi high court remark came while delivering judgement in a plea filed by former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Lakshmi Puri asking activist Gokhale to delete all tweets against her. The HC further said that if Gokhale does not delete the tweets, then Twitter is directed to take down those URLs.

A bench of Justice C Harishankar remarked that "in the age of social media, desecration of the reputation of a public figure has become child's play. All that is needed is the opening of a social media account and, thereafter, the posting of messages on the account. Thousands of responses are received and, in the process, the reputation of the man, who is targeted, becomes mud."

The court, however, clarified that the prima facie opinion is intended only for the purposes of the present order, and the present stay application, and should not be regarded as an encroachment into the territories properly occupied by the Income Tax authorities, the Election Commission, or any other concerned statutory authority.

"I have scrutinised the affidavits filed by the plaintiff's husband while standing for elections, and I do not, prima facie, find any concealment therein. Mr Maninder Singh is correct in his submission that there is no column, in the said affidavits, which would require including the details of the finances provided by the plaintiff's daughter towards the purchase of the Swiss Apartment," the court said.

"In any event, given the exhaustive disclosures contained in the affidavits filed by the plaintiff's husband, as well as by the plaintiff herself in her Income Tax returns, it can hardly be said, prima facie, that the plaintiff, or her husband, were less than candid in declaring not only the purchase of the Swiss Apartment, but its value as well as the source from which funds were obtained for the said purpose, so as to justify the tirade launched against them by the defendant (Gokhale), by his unending series of tweets," the court added.

The court also observed that Gokhale's tweet was 'erroneous' as well as 'misleading' on at least three counts.

"The first was that the plaintiff was not posted on deputation with the UNCTAD. She had taken leave consequent to having joined UN posting with the UNCTAD. She remained on leave from 2002 to 2011, and took voluntary retirement from the IFS in 2011, the court noted. Second count was the plaintiff was not in an annual pay band of Rs 10-12 lakhs, but was drawing tax-free pay, from the UN, in the region of CHF 250,000 to 300,000 per annum," the court noted.

The court refused to accept the submission of advocate Sarim Naved, who appeared for Gokhale, that "before posting messages on a social media platform, made accessible to all members of the public, against any person, no due diligence, by way of conducting, at the very least, a preliminary enquiry into the facts, is necessary."

""Such a submission, if accepted, would place the reputation of every citizen in the country in serious jeopardy, and open to ransom at the hands of every social media vigilante, some of whose intentions may be less than honourable. This is all the more so in the case of public figures, whose actions are, as a matter of course, subjected to intensive and invasive dissection by all members of the public," the court noted.

"Accusative tweets, such as those which the defendant has posted against the plaintiff, therefore, attract much more adverse, and derogatory, comments than those against persons who do not live in the public gaze," noted the High Court.

"To my mind, before posting tweets such as those which were posted by the defendant against the plaintiff, it was incumbent on the defendant to carry out a preliminary due diligence exercise," the court said adding that ideally, in the first instance, clarifications ought to have been sought from the person against whom the messages were intended to be posted.

The court also said the damage that Puri and her husband have suffered as a result of the tweets is apparent, but "that is one of the unavoidable pitfalls of access to social media platforms and the way in which they work, by those who abuse their facility, as the defendant has, in the present case, prima facie chosen to do."

It also informed that till the date of filing of the suit, the tweets posted by the Gokhale had been "liked" by more than 26,270 users and "re-tweeted" by more than 8,280 users.

"40 pages of responding tweets, by members of the defendant's target audience, have also been placed on record, with several of the tweets being, to say the least, in very poor taste, containing abuses, allegations and opprobrious epithets against the plaintiff as well as her husband," the High Court added. (ANI)

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