Courts bat for press freedom on defamation

IN Media Freedom | 03/05/2015
By and large, the courts have backed journalists against charges of criminal defamation by government and public figures over the past year. A World Press Freedom Day special.
PRASHANT REDDY THIKKAVARAPU scrutinises some important rulings.
A lot has happened since the last World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2014. The infamous Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2001 has been struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The Court also admitted petitions challenging the constitutionality of Section 499 & 500 which punish defamation with imprisonment. 
Far away from the Supreme Court and the grand constitutional cases, several Indian editors and journalists are sued daily for defamation in both civil and criminal courts across India. The last year witnessed several interesting judgments from the courts, most of which have shielded the Indian press from allegations of defamation. A few of these judgments are discussed below. 
When governments file criminal complaints against the press for alleged defamation
It is rare for a democratic government to file criminal complaints of defamation against the press for criticism of government policies or decisions. The state of Tamil Nadu is, however, a dishonourable exception to this general trend. 
In the last one year, the Madras High Court quashed four different criminal complaints by the state government against two media outlets – one complaint against Times Now, one against Dina Malar and two against Dinakaran, for allegedly defaming the government.  
The case against Times Now specifically named anchor Arnab Goswami, its Chennai correspondent and the Editor-Output for broadcasting, in 2013, a news report on the poor quality of mid-day meals which apparently contained maggots, worms etc. 
It also reported how the Collector suspended two employees for the poor standard of food. Apparently the state government was of the opinion that the reporting defamed the Chief Minister, the Minister for Social Welfare, the Director, the District Collector and the Noon-Meal Scheme Project Director. As argued by Times Now lawyers, the news item did not make any comment on the individual performance of these persons. 
In fact, the prompt action taken by the government was mentioned in the report. The lawyers also pointed out that no similar complaints had been filed against other media outlets, several of whom had reported the same story. In a judgment in July, 2014 the Madras High Court quashed the complaint on the grounds that it failed to explain how the news report defamed any of the ministers or bureaucrats. There were also procedural issues regarding the sanction order authorizing the prosecution against Times Now – the sanction order authorized the filing of the complaint on behalf of the Social Welfare department and not any of the other persons mentioned in the complaint. 
The Madras High Court also observed that the proceedings against Times Now appeared to be “vindictive”, a scathing indictment of a state government which has made it a habit of suing the press for defamation. The judgment can be accessed here.
Both criminal complaints of defamation against Dinakaran were filed on behalf of Tamil Nadu’s Minister for Food and a third criminal complaint was filed against Dina Malar on behalf of the Minister for Handlooms and Textiles. 
The first complaint alleged that “wrong information was given in the news item as if the quantity of rice is reduced from 20 Kgs to 15 Kgs and in the fair price shops, grams and palm oils are not sold and during Christmas, New Year and Pongal 30% of rice supply was reduced and therefore, the news item was published with malafide intention to defame the Hon'ble Minister for Food and therefore, the prosecution was launched” (sic). 
The Madras High Court disagreed with the government because there was no specific averment against the Minister. The Court also stated: “If really the quantity of rice has not been reduced as stated in the newspaper and as claimed by the respondent, the Minister concerned can come out with a news item denying the report and even assuming that the report does not reflect correct position, it does not amount to defamation, as the publisher of the newspaper is entitled to publish news item from the information gathered.” 
As a result, the complaint was quashed in February, 2015. The judgment can be accessed here.
In the second complaint, also filed on behalf of Tamil Nadu’s Minister for Food, it was alleged that a news report published by Dinakaran on December 21, 2014 reporting on how food prepared by the government’s ‘Amma Canteen’ was being wasted, defamed the Principal Secretary/Commissioner, Corporation of Chennai since it gave the impression that the public did not like the food being prepared at these canteens. 
In a judgment on February 25, 2015 the Madras High Court quashed even this complaint on the grounds that “the publisher is entitled to publish news item in the interest of public and he can also publish news item for the purpose of bringing to the notice of the officer concerned about the wastages in Amma Canteen and also negligence of the employees of Amma Canteen in preparing the food.” 
The judgment can be accessed here.
In the third complaint, filed on behalf of Tamil Nadu’s Minister for Handlooms and Textiles against Dina Malar, a news daily,for a news report which said that, due to a labour shortage, there would likely be a reduction in the manufacture of dhotis and saris to about 60% to 65% of the required number, raising doubts on whether free dhotis and saris would be given at Pongal. 
Apparently the public prosecutor had argued that “false information was given in the news item that only 60% of production was achieved but the actual production was more than 65% and therefore, without verifying the information from the department, the news was given to defame the Hon'ble Minister for Handlooms and Textiles.” 
The High Court quashed this complaint on February 25, 2015 on the grounds that there was no statement made against the Minister. The High Court also stated that the publication of inaccurate information did not automatically result in defamation and that the relevant Ministry could solve the problem by issuing a clarification. 
The judgment can be accessed here.
Tamil Nadu isn’t the only state where ministers and bureaucrats regularly file defamation cases against the media. In a judgement dated July, 2014 the Patna High Court quashed a criminal complaint of defamation filed in 2000 by an IAS officer against an employee and union member of the Bihar State Road Transport Corporation. In that case, a Hindi daily called Hindustan had published a report titled “Rajya Pariwahan Mein Loot Machi Hai". It contained information of allegations of tenders being placed with black-listed firms, corruption etc. by the Bihar State Road Transport Corporation. The IAS officer who was the administrator of the Corporation filed a criminal complaint of defamation against the newspaper, correspondent and editor. 
The case was quashed by the High Court in March 2008. The petitioner in the case, who at the time was a suspended employee (and also a member of the union) and who was merely quoted in the news report as saying that over 200 employees had been suspended from the corporation. The IAS officer alleged that the union member was the source of all the defamatory information. 
The High Court quashed the criminal complaint because the employee had been quoted only on the point of employees being suspended. The report did not quote him as making any of the defamatory allegations. The Patna High Court also went on to say: “Opposite Party No. 2 is a public servant and he ought to remember that anybody who fills a public position must not be so thin-skinned that every statement/publication offends him. As a public servant, Opposite Party No. 2 has rendered himself open, justifiably so, to criticisms. Any public servant, operating in public field has to keep in mind that he is under the surveillance of public at large. The only test whether any comment is defamatory or not is whether it is made in good faith and so far as the publisher and editor are concerned; whether such items have been published after due care and attention to the fact whether such news item is correct and non-defamatory.”
The judgment can be accessed here.
Convictions and decrees against journalists for defamation 
There were at least three cases in the last year where the High Courts upheld the findings of the lower courts in either criminal or civil cases filed against journalists and newspapers for defamation. 
In the case of Prof. Ram Prakash v. D.N. Srivastava, the appellant had filed a criminal complaint in November 2008 against the Assistant Editor and Editor of the Jan Vikas for publishing an allegedly defamatory article titled 'Adaalat ke aadesh par bhi Nagar Nigam Maun' (Despite Court Orders, Municipal Corporation Silent) in the 3rd to 9th December 2007 issue” of Jan Vikas
This report had described how the MCD had not taken any action against the property belonging to Professor Ram Prakash despite notices for unauthorized construction and unlawful use because of the Professor’s allegedly “extraordinary influence”. 
The report, however, was silent on the fact that the Assistant Editor was actually a tenant of Professor Ram Prakash who had without authorization built on the Professor’s property and that a civil court had ruled against the Assistant Editor in tenancy-related litigation. 
The trial court, after a trial, dismissed the complaint in June, 2012 and the Professor filed an appeal before the Delhi High Court on the grounds that the publication of the news report was not in good faith. The High Court reversed this ruling in July, 2014 for mainly two reasons. 
Firstly, the court held that there was no good faith in the publication of the news report because the Assistant Editor had failed to mention that he was in fact a tenant who was involved in litigation with the Professor and more importantly because the report did not disclose that the Assistant Editor had actually built the unauthorized construction for which a notice was issued. 
Secondly the court pointed out how the journalists and paper had completely failed to establish how the Professor had used his connections to stop the MCD from taking legal action. The High Court sentenced the Assistant Editor till the rise of the Court and also imposed a fine of Rs. 10,000. Similarly the Editor was also fined Rs. 10,000. 
The judgment can be accessed here.
Meanwhile in Gandhinagar, the Gujarat High Court delivered a judgment in March, 2015 in a criminal defamation case where the original complaint was filed in 1995 by a teacher of a school in Deesa who was accused of molesting school girls in his school by the accused in his weekly publication, Chalte Firte
The complainant also alleged that the journalist tried to extort money when asked to retract the story. The trial court convicted the journalist for criminal defamation in 2000 and sentenced him to prison for 30 days along with a penalty of Rs. 1,000. The appeals court i.e. the Additional Session Judge in Deesra confirmed the judgment in 2006. 
Thereafter the journalist filed a revision application before the Gujarat High Court which delivered its judgement after nine years in 2015. The High Court records that the conduct of the journalist “is nothing but a misuse of a position by the accused as an owner and publisher of the Weekly newspaper and in absence of evidence in rebuttal, there is no reason or scope to modify findings of facts by trial Court which are confirmed by appellate Court.” 
However, given the journalist’s age, the High Court did away with the prison term and instead hiked the penalty on the journalist to Rs. 50,000, which was to be paid to the complainant. 
The judgment can be accessed here.
In the third case, the Punjab & Haryana High Court upheld a decree by the lower courts finding certain news published in the Punjab Kesri to be defamatory and awarded damages of Rs. 1 lakh. The news item in question was published in January, 2003 and had imputed, without mentioning the name of the lady in question, that she had been arrested by the police along with her ‘lover’ in a hotel in the city. 
The imputation to the lady, who filed the suit for defamation, was made by mentioning the fact that the lady who was arrested had been honoured by the district administration of Panipat on Republic Day. The lady-plaintiff was the only lady to be so honoured on that occasion and thus she alleged that the news report was making it clear that she was the woman in question. 
Before the trial court she had managed to prove that she was in fact not the girl arrested by the police and got the police to testify in her favour. Since the information was factually wrong, damages were granted to her for the factually incorrect report. On appeal, the High Court in a judgment dated August, 2014, refused to interfere with the decree of the lower court. 
The judgment can be accessed here.
(Continued on page two...)
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