Top editors' body urges former Indian minister to drop defamation case against #MeToo journalist

Mr M.J. Akbar has been accused of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment by nearly 20 women. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - A day after resigning as minister of state for external affairs following a spate of sexual harassment claims, Mr M.J. Akbar faced calls from a top editors' body on Thursday (Oct 18) to drop his defamation case against a woman journalist.

Mr Akbar, once a prominent newspaper editor himself, has been accused of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment by nearly 20 women.

The women, who had worked for him during his journalistic career, alleged being forcibly kissed, touched inappropriately and made to feel uncomfortable such as during job interviews held in hotel rooms.

Mr Akbar, 67, who wrote in his resignation letter that he had decided to step down to "seek justice in a court of law in my personal capacity", has filed a defamation suit against Ms Priya Ramani, the first journalist to name him in a tweet.

He accuses Ms Ramani of "wilfully, deliberately, intentionally and maliciously defaming" him. Defamation can carry up to two years in jail.

Ms Ramani wrote an article titled "To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world" last year for Vogue India in which she recounted her experience working with an editor who had interviewed her for the job in a hotel room and asked her to sit on the bed. She named Mr Akbar only in a tweet early this month.

Proceedings for the case began on Thursday even as the Editors Guild - Mr Akbar is a past president - asked the former minister to withdraw his suit. The judge took cognisance of the case and fixed Oct 31 for the next hearing.

"The Editors Guild of India salutes the courage shown by several women journalists in bringing to light instances of how they were sexually harassed. The resignation of M.J. Akbar is a result of these women journalists' courage to fight for a high principle: gender equality in the newsroom,'' the Guild said in a statement offering support to the women who had named him.

"We hope that Akbar will also display the grace to withdraw the criminal defamation case against one of these complainants. But if he doesn't, or in case he files such cases against other women too, the Guild offers its support to them."

Ms Ramani has found support with 20 women signing a petition to testify on her behalf.

The #Me Too movement in India exploded after actress Tanushree Dutta spoke of harassment by actor Nana Patekar on the set of the film Horn OK Pleassss a decade ago.

In a spontaneous outpouring over the past three weeks, women have shared their stories of sexual harassment at the workplace on social media, particularly Twitter, naming well-known journalists, actors, directors and authors.

Author Chetan Bhagat, movie directors Vikas Bahl and Sajid Khan and actor Nana Patekar have been named but all denied the charges.

Me Too Rising, a Google interactive map that lights up locations where searches for #MeToo are trending, showed India shining the brightest on Tuesday.

The top headlines in Indian newspapers were about Mr Akbar's resignation. "Akbar quits as minister amid mounting pressure, charges,'' read the headline in Hindustan Times, while that for The Indian Express said "M.J. Akbar exits the workplace".

In a country where patriarchy has deep roots and women are not encouraged to speak out, women activists said Mr Akbar's resignation sent a strong message.

"This has sent a very strong message particularly to women that they can speak out and that if they speak out collectively, they don't have to be alone in this fight," said Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research.

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