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MAY 2014
LEGALLY INDIA

iProbono starts anti-SLAPP league of extraordinary advocates to defend freedom of speech

"The easiest way to stifle public participation is the use of the police and state machinery. All kinds of frivolous cases are brought against activists on public issues and the police can arrest people without proper grounds, yet nobody is held accountable. We need to find a solution that involves police reform and where courts quickly dispose of cases that are without merit."

Prashant Bhushan

Senior Advocate

The iProbono initiative, which connects civil society organisations with lawyers to advise them, pro bono, has started a project to build a network of lawyers who are interested in fighting so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) for activists and publishers, as well as lobbying for changes in laws.

The initiative was conceived out of a February forum at which more than 20 lawyers, civil society members, publishers and journalists convened in Delhi to discuss SLAPP and restrictions on freedom of speech faced in India.

Shireen Irani, executive director of iProbono, said: “There is a need to build a community of professionals, journalists and civil society organisations that can respond to SLAPP actions. The ‘defending public participation’ network will enable people to share experiences, insights and obtain timely assistance in combating attempts to stifle free speech and undermine the rule of law.

“Over the long term, the legal community needs to push for judicial reform to enforce meaningful penalties against those that seek to abuse the court system by filing frivolous law suits.”

Publisher Maheshwar Peri, a former president of the Outlook staple of magazines who started Careers360 magazine, has suits against him by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) in Gwalior that had blocked several web pages allegedly defaming the college.

Explaining SLAPPs, Peri said that a SLAPP aims to make it “impossible for a person to continue their work by draining them of time and resources as they defend multiple legal disputes, or by pressuring them into keeping quiet by dragging family members, promoters and friends into the litigation for no reason”.

Amnesty International India policy adviser Shailesh Rai set out examples of how SLAPPs have been used regularly to suppress legitimate activism by less-well off sections of society against powerful corporate interests. “The criminal justice system is a potent weapon to curb public participation because of its vast potential for abuse.

“Several activists have faced arrest and detention based on false charges and fabricated evidence. Draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, under which people can be detained for up to six months without being formally charged, are also used to curb dissenting voices.

“Once arrested, detainees can face excessive pre-trial detention, which violates their fair trial rights and leads to overcrowding in prisons.  Two out of three prisoners in India are pre-trial detainees. In Chhattisgarh, jails are overcrowded by over 250%, and adivasis and other disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected.”

Advocate Prashant Bhushan added at the forum: “The easiest way to stifle public participation is the use of the police and state machinery. All kinds of frivolous cases are brought against activists on public issues and the police can arrest people without proper grounds, yet nobody is held accountable. We need to find a solution that involves police reform and where courts quickly dispose of cases that are without merit.”

According to a statement, iProbono would work “to build the network, campaign for judicial reform and provide the legal support that is critical in defending SLAPP actions”, and that lawyers interested in being part of the defending public participation network should email admin@i-probono.com

This article is taken from Legally India