Free speech in the courts: legal outcomes in 2016

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Media Freedom | 30/12/2016
Sedition, defamation, censorship, internet shutdowns—the year saw the courts being tested on a range of freedom of expression issues.
SEVANTI NINAN surveys significant court orders and rulings

Pix: top left Madras High Court, bottom left Chhattisgarh High Court, Supreme Court, top right Delhi High Court, bottom right BombayHigh Court 


2016 saw the courts being tested  on a range issues concerning  freedom of  expression. It was a  year in which cases of sedition and defamation, and of censorship of films and other arts reached record numbers.   Significant orders and rulings in the supreme court and high courts this year spanned the gamut of conflicts between state and media, state and artist,  state appointed censor board and film makers, legislature and media, state and political opposition, and the conflict between societal censure and free expression---the right to free speech of  a citizen  versus another’s right to take offence. Also, the challenges opening up on the digital front,  with mobile internet bans for instance being imposed under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Perhaps the most significant rulings in the course of the year were on upholding the validity of criminal defamation, and on defamation and sedition, and whether strong criticism would amount to committing either offence.


Criminal defamation, and what qualifies as defamation

In May, giving its verdict on a batch of petitions including the ones by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the criminal defamation law.  The court pronounced its verdict challenging the constitutional validity of sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code providing for criminal defamation.

The law has no chilling effect on free speech, the apex court said. "Right to free speech is not absolute. It does not mean freedom to hurt another's reputation which is protected under Article 21 of the Constitution".  There was dismay over a ruling  which seemed to nullify efforts to decriminalize defamation.


"The year which saw the demise of J Jayalalitha, CM of Tamilnadu, also saw the Supreme Court pull her up earlier in the year for using defamation as a political tool."


A few months down the line, in August, however, the SC clarified that criticism did not constitute defamation.  The year which saw the demise of J Jayalalitha, CM of Tamilnadu, also saw the Supreme Court pull her up earlier in the year for using defamation as a political tool.   It quashed a non-bailable warrant issued against DMDK chief Vijayakanth, and said that criminal defamation proceedings cannot be initiated for merely critiquing the government. 

The apex court expressed concern over the defamation law being misused and the office of public prosecutor in Tamilnadu being used as a 'post office' for initiating politically motivated cases against opponents. It said during the hearing that calling a government corrupt or unfit cannot be grounds for a defamation prosecution.  (In the year under review the AIDMK government also filed 16 cases of defamation against in the media in just the first three months of the year.)



In January and October judges at two high courts, Delhi and Chhattisgarh respectively, grappled with the issue of why young people were inclined to allegedly seditious thoughts.  The Delhi judge was examining Kanhaiya Kumar’s application for bail in the JNU sedition case  and wondered aloud,

"why the colour of peace is eluding the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University". While granting Kanhaiya Kumar interim bail for six months the Court noted that being of the "intellectual class" Kumar could have any political or ideological affiliation, and had the right to pursue the same within the framework of the Constitution. To afford time to introspect on the events that had culminated in the arrest of Kumar and provide "antibiotic" to cure the "infection", the Court was inclined to grant him an opportunity to return to the mainstream.

Six months down the line in Bilaspur, a Chhattisgarh High Court judge considered the bail application of a Kashmiri youth residing in Chhattisgarh who had shared a Facebook post which showed a cartoon of India  being swept by a broom. He took a more judgmental view than the Delhi court, noting that while the case diary does not suggest that any disorder or disturbance of public place took place, “The argument that the applicant had only liked the face book wall and has a right of freedom of expression cannot be appreciated. It cannot be ignored that the applicant is able to study and live a life of freedom in this country only…” This judge too granted bail but urged introspection.

2016 was a year when sedition went viral and a large number of cases were filed, 18 between just January and June. In a case hearing on  September 6  the SC clarified that sedition or defamation cases could not be slapped on anyone criticising the government: “Someone making a statement to   criticise the government does not invoke an offence under sedition or defamation law. We have made it clear that invoking of section 124(A) of IPC (sedition) requires certain guidelines to be followed as per the earlier judgement of the apex court,” a bench of Justices Dipak Misra and U Lalit said while hearing a petition by Common Cause on the misuse of the sedition law.

However the Supreme Court declined   to pass a direction on the Common Cause plea that a copy of this order be sent to all Chief Secretaries of states and the Directors General of Police. “You have to file a separate plea highlighting if any misuse of sedition law is there. In criminal jurisprudence, allegations and cognisance have to be case specific, otherwise it will go haywire. There can’t be any generalisation,” the bench said.


Bans as regulation: I and B ministry vs TV channels

2016 saw three bans imposed on TV channels in the course of the year by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, for durations varying from one week to one day. NDTV India  was ordered to go  off air for a day for having revealed "strategically-sensitive" details while covering the Pathankot terrorist attack,  the one day ban quickly became a cause celebre.  The channel moved the Supreme Court   against the ban but the court deferred hearing the case. Care World TV, a health channel upon which a seven-day ban was imposed,  went to court as well and obtained a heartening  order. The Bombay High Court said the order was completely illegal and a breach of the elementary principles of natural justice.  It also observed that larger issue of the power of the central government to impose such a ban would have to be examined.


"The Bombay High Court said the order was completely illegal and a breach of the elementary principles of natural justice."


Given that there have been 32 bans imposed by the ministry over the last twelve years, this year may have seen the beginning of a significant push back.


Legislature and the media

In August 2015 an enquiry  committee set up by the UP Legislative Assembly had held staff of two TV channels of the  of TV Today group guilty of breach of privilege of Azam Khan, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister in the Samajwadi Party government in the state, and an MLA from Rampur constituency.

In March this year  the Supreme Court stayed the proceedings initiated by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Legislative Assembly. 

This committee had been set up by the Sadan on 17 September, 2013, to examine allegations aired against Khan  in a sting operation telecast on  Aaj Tak and Headlines Today channels in relation to the  Muzaffarnagar riots. It held 48 meetings, it said in its report, examining the evidence and listening to the channel representatives, before it concluded that there had been a breach of privilege.    

Senior advocate Soli Sorabjee had filed a Special Leave Petition in the SC under Article 32 of the Constitution. Appearing for the TV Today Network's channels — Aaj Tak and Headlines Today (now India Today) — submitted that UP assembly had no locus standi to direct journalists to appear before it for having conducted the sting operation since it pertained to a matter outside the assembly and did not in any way impede the functioning of the House or any of its members.

"The proceedings against petitioners by the UP Legislative Assembly shall remain stayed," a Bench of justices J S Khehar and C Nagappan said and asked the UP government and its legislative assembly to file their response within four weeks on the petition by the channel and its staffers. The bench said  it was passing this order  to give the Additional Advocate General of the state of Uttar Pradesh more time which he had sought to file a counter affidavit so as to enable him to place the complete picture of the controversy on the record of this case.

The case has not been heard by the apex court again, but it constitutes a significant test case on whether media exposing a legislator’s actions outside the assembly can attract a charge of breach of privilege. The detailed report of the enquiry committee does point out though that the legislator had not been given a chance to respond to the expose before it was telecast.


Triumphing over community censorship

In July 2016  came a judgement from the Madras High Court which ws hailed  for striking a much needed blow against community censorship of the arts. In 2015 Tamil writer Perumal Murugan had announced his death as a writer after orchestrated protests demanding a ban on his novel  Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman)in his hometown of Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu. He had been forced to tender an apology at a local peace committee meeting.

The Hindu  said in an editorial “The 160-page judgment by a Division Bench headed by Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul builds on a series of progressive rulings. It has applied the contemporary community standards test in concluding that there is nothing obscene in the novel.”  It however demurred later in its editorial that the suggestion of the bench that the state should set up an experts body to resolve conflicts such as these could itself represent a compromise. 

After the judgement the writer said in a statement that it had given him much  happiness. "It comforts a heart that had shrunk itself and wilted. I am trying to prop up myself holding on to the light of the last lines of the judgment, "Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write."


"After the judgement the writer said in a statement that it had given him much happiness."


The following month, in August 2016,  there was  a victory in a similar case for a Mumbai writer charged with obscenity in 2005  for a  novel published in 1994.  In this case there was no judgement--the  charge was withdrawn 11 years after being filed.  The Hindu reported that a 19-year-old student at the Urdu Department of Mumbai University had registered a complaint at the Jogeshwari police station stating that she found two paragraphs in Mr Abbas’ 1994 novel, Nakhlistan ki Talash (The Search of an Oasis), “objectionable” and “obscene”. The allegations cost him his job as a teacher at the Anjuman-e-Islam’s English High School and Allana Junior College. The complainant retracted her statement this year and said she had misunderstood the writing.


Upholding cinematic freedom of expression

In a year which saw practically weekly tussles between  film makers and the Central Board of Film Certification, there were at least two court judgments which upheld the creative freedom of film makers. While expressing diametrically opposite views on the judgment of the Central Board of Film Certification!

In April the Bombay High Court on Thursday declined to grant a stay on the release of a Bengali film called Dark Chocolate, based on the Sheena Bora murder case.  Peter Mukherjea,  the co-accused in the case, and his sister had filed a petition seeking a stay on the grounds that the film was defamatory. While rejecting the plea a division bench of the High Court said that it had faith in the Central Board of Film Certification which must have analysed  the film before approving it for release.

In June the Bombay High Court upheld only one of 94 cuts ordered in the film Udta Punjab,  saying that the CBFC did not have the power to censor films.  While the CBFC merely cited guidelines and offered no reasoning for the cuts it was demanding, the court did not actually question the lack of a reasoned order by the board. Instead the judgement focused on defending the scenes sought to be deleted.


Digital challenges

Finally the courts grappled with internet bans and offences arising out of social media.

The year saw the Supreme Court rule on the  legality of Internet shutdowns under Section 144 CrPC.   In February the apex court ruled that mobile internet can be banned under this section, and dismissed an appeal challenging a judgment of the Gujarat High Court which had upheld the ban on mobile internet under S.144 of Code of Criminal Procedure.  Dismissing the argument that there was a provision for such bans under the Telegraph Act the court said that using this section “becomes very necessary sometimes for law and order. There can be concurrent powers”, remarked one of the judges before dismissing the petition.

High courts in Delhi and Madras dealt with cases involving uploading of morphed pictures on social media, the sharing of What’sApp data with Facebook and the posting of defamatory videos on Youtube.  In October The Madras High Court directed YouTube and Google to disclose details of a user who posted a video that a private company  termed defamatory. 

And in the same month the Delhi HC restrained social websites, including Facebook India, Google, YouTube and Twitter India, from publishing or showing any derogatory photographs of expelled AIADMK MP Sasikala Pushpa. The order by Justice R K Gauba came after Pushpa alleged that unknown persons had threatened to upload her morphed photos on the internet.


Sports feed: advantage public broadcaster

In a ruling with significant commercial implications  the Supreme Court held in May this year that when private  sector sports broadcasters shared their feed with the public broadcaster, the signal provided had to be stripped of advertisements, if the revenue from those advertisements was not being shared with Prasar Bharati: “The sharing of the signals has to be without any advertisements and if the advertisements are to be included in the signals, the revenue has to be shared equally.”

The court said that the law which mandated the sharing-- Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory Sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act-- said it should be the best feed possible. Star India Ltd  had filed an appeal against sharing ad free feed with Prasar Bharati. The broadcaster had argued that the feed it received from the organisers would necessarily include advertisements, logos and other on-screen credits presented during the game.



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More