NEW DELHI — A court in New Delhi on Wednesday acquitted an Indian journalist of defamation after she accused M.J. Akbar, a prominent former government minister and newspaper editor, of sexual harassment, in a dispute widely seen as a barometer of the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement.
Mr. Akbar had accused the journalist, Priya Ramani, of criminal defamation after she made her allegations. But the court found that Mr. Akbar failed to prove his case, saying that Ms. Ramani’s claims were in the interest of preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
The court said in its order that the “right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity.”
Mr. Akbar has the opportunity to appeal.
Had Ms. Ramani been found guilty of defamation, she could have been imprisoned for up to two years, fined or both. Under Indian law, individuals can make a criminal defamation claim in the courts, though the legal standard is higher than for civil defamation cases.
Even though Ms. Ramani was acquitted, experts say the defamation suit could still have a chilling effect among women seeking to come forward to complain of harassment and violence at the hands of powerful men. Mr. Akbar, a member of India’s Parliament, mustered a team of nearly 100 lawyers to press his defamation claim against Ms. Ramani.
Mr. Akbar, who founded and edited several newspapers and magazines before switching to politics, has been the most prominent figure in Indian public life to face wide accusations of sexual harassment amid the rise of the #MeToo movement. He is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and was part of the team that helped bring Mr. Modi to power in India’s 2014 election.
He resigned as minister of state for external affairs in 2018 after Ms. Ramani’s allegations of sexual harassment prompted 20 other women to sign a letter making similar accusations. Mr. Akbar has denied all of the women’s allegations.
Ms. Ramani’s accusations focused on Mr. Akbar’s tenure at The Asian Age, the newspaper he started in the early 1990s.
In October 2017, she wrote an article for Vogue India in which she described an uncomfortable hotel room encounter with a senior editor during a job interview more than 20 years earlier. She described him as a legend in the news industry but did not include his name.
A year later, in October 2018, as the #MeToo movement swept Indian social media, with Bollywood stars and journalists speaking out, Ms. Ramani tweeted a link to the Vogue story, this time identifying Mr. Akbar, then a junior foreign minister in Mr. Modi’s cabinet.
“Lots of women have worse stories about this predator,” she wrote. “Maybe they’ll share.”
Within days, nearly a dozen journalists came forward with allegations ranging from harassment to rape by Mr. Akbar during his tenure as a senior editor with various Indian publications. By the end of the month, 21 female journalists had published their allegations. They said Mr. Akbar had used his position as a senior editor to harass and intimidate them, mostly young women starting their careers in journalism.
Mr. Akbar resigned amid the allegations but filed a defamation suit against Ms. Ramani the following day. Ms. Ramani has since deactivated her Twitter account. Mr. Akbar has said the deactivation amounted to evidence tampering.
In a court hearing in September, Ms. Ramani said her allegations did not amount to defamation because they were true and in the public interest.
Mr. Akbar did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Wednesday. Ms. Ramani said that she could not discuss the case until a verdict had been reached.
“I spoke because women before me spoke up,” she said at a literature festival in 2019. “I spoke so people after me can speak up.”