Journalists Exonerated of Defamation Charges Filed by United Phosphorus Ltd. After 22 Years
On Saturday, August 4, 2018, the Mumbai Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court acquitted, Mr. Ramoji Rao, Editor and media entrepreneur, Mr. Shailendra Yashwant, Independent photo-journalist and Mr. Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia/Sanctuary Features (then Divisions of Advertising Concessionaires Pvt. Ltd.) of all charges in a defamation suit filed against them in May 1996 by United Phosphorous Ltd. (UPL) one of India's largest agro-chemical/pesticide manufacturers.
In July 1995, Shailendra Yashwant, meticulously researched and wrote an article on the environmental damage caused by chemicals and pesticides units in Gujarat’s Vapi industrial area and the consequent adverse impact on the once-pure Daman Ganga river. The article was commissioned by Sanctuary Features and published by Newstime, Hyderabad.
The meticulously researched article referred to controversies surrounding dangerous levels of pollution in Vapi, a chemical hub in Gujarat, where the discharge of untreated toxic effluents through unauthorised and illegal outlets were polluting the Damanganga river. A key point highlighted was also the importation of a second-hand chlor-alkali plant from Norway by UPL that had been closed because it was considered an environmental liability by the exporting country. By way of response, almost a year later, in May 1996, UPL filed a defamation case against journalists Yashwant, Sahgal and Rao under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code.
The case went on for over 22 years and on Saturday August 4, 2018, Metropolitan Magistrate, Honorable Mr. K G Paldewar finally dismissed the case, exonerating and acquitting the three journalists of all charges. In open court he went on to laud the journalists and their Senior Advocate Raj Panjwani, for their dedication, determination and meticulous work in demonstrating the impacts of pollution in the public interest. He made special mention of the fact that there were clear Supreme Court orders prohibiting activities that led to hazardous waste pollution of the kind central to the article in question.
Earlier, in a related case, the Umbergaon Judicial Magistrate, in December, 2014 had also acquitted Shailendra Yashwant of all charges of criminal intimidation in yet another case filed against him in 2002 by Jai Research Foundation, the research wing of UPL.
Expressing the fullest faith in the judiciary, Mr. Bittu Sahgal said, "We welcome the judgment, which underscores both the freedom of the press and the urgent need to arrest the manner in which India's air, water and soils are being rendered unfit for health, and, often, at the cost of lives. This is not a 'victory' for three journalists, but for future generations of Indians who must be handed a functional planet to support themselves."
The court informed that the full and final judgment would be available in three to four weeks.