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Journalist Tarun Tejpal to publish apology over defamatory article against top Army officer, HC told

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New Delhi: Journalist Tarun Tejpal told the Delhi High Court on Friday he will publish an apology in a national daily stating that an Indian Army officer, against whom he had levelled allegations of corruption in defence procurement, had not accepted any money. The high court was hearing an appeal filed by Tejpal, the proprietor of Tehelka.com, and its reporter Aniruddha Bahal challenging a single judge’s order awarding a compensation of Rs 2 crore to Major General M S Ahluwalia for the loss of reputation suffered by him on account of a 2001 “expose” by the news portal alleging his involvement in corruption in defence procurement.

The counsel for the duo also told the high court that they will deposit Rs 10 lakh each with the court.

A bench of Acting Chief Justice Manmohan and Justice Manmeet PS Arora took on record the undertaking made by Tejpal and Bahal’s lawyers, and listed the appeal for hearing and disposal in April to decide the quantum of damages to be paid by them.

The high court also stayed the proceedings in the petition Ahluwalia has filed seeking execution of the decree passed in his favour.

Senior advocates Siddharth Luthra and Pramod Kumar Dubey, representing Tejpal and Bahal, submitted they are willing to deposit Rs 10 lakh each within two weeks and to publish an unconditional apology in a national English daily specifically stating that Ahluwalia had neither asked for nor accepted any money.

They claimed they do not have the means to pay a huge amount of Rs 2 crore to Ahluwalia. The counsel for Ahluwalia contended that the appeal was not maintainable. He said the officer lived with stigma for nearly 22 years and a mere apology is not enough. He also said Tejpal and Bahal must deposit a “substantial” amount.

The bench said in a defamation matter like the present one, an apology is a major relief and that it will consider the aspect of quantum of damages when it hears the appeal.

On July 21, 2023, the single judge had, while deciding a lawsuit by the officer, directed that Rs 2 crore shall be paid by Tehelka.Com, its owner M/s Buffalo Communications, its proprietor Tarun Tejpal, and reporters Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel.

Underlining that there can’t be a more blatant case of causing serious harm to the reputation of an honest Army officer, the judge had observed that an apology after 23 years of publication was “not only inadequate but is meaningless”.

The court, however, said the plaintiff was not able to prove any act of defamation on the part of Zee Telefilms Ltd and its officials who telecast 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 also got maligned with serious allegations of corruption which no subsequent refutation can redress or heal.

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

The plaintiff claimed he was defamed in the story “Operation West End” as it was wrongly broadcast and reported that he had accepted a bribe.

The single judge had rejected the defence of “truth”, “public good” and “good faith” pleaded by Tejpal and others and said there could not be a worse defamation to a person of integrity than a “false imputation of him having demanded and then accepted a bribe of Rs 50,000”.

It had noted that the consequence of such reporting was that a Court of Inquiry was initiated against the officer, and although no misconduct was proved against him, he was awarded “serious displeasure”, a sort of censure, for his alleged conduct.

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