Tamil Nadu counsel submits that defamation cases have been withdrawn

The Supreme Court on Thursday disposed of a batch of writ petitions filed by the Editor of The Hindu N. Ravi and nine other representatives of the newspaper, the (former) Editor of Junior Vikatan S. Balasubramaniam and the then Editor of Kalki K. Rajendran, challenging the defamation cases filed by the Jayalalithaa government in a Chennai court.

The action by a Bench of Justice H.S. Bedi and Justice B.S. Chauhan followed a submission by Tamil Nadu counsel S. Thananjayan that all the cases had been withdrawn by a Government Order dated June 6, 2004. The Bench recorded the submission and disposed of the matter.

The State government in its affidavit filed in September 2004 said that “in the context of publication of several false and defamatory news items and articles in their respective newspapers and magazines against the [then] Chief Minister and other public servants in respect of their conduct in their discharge of their public functions and duties, the Tamil Nadu government was constrained to file defamation cases to ensure that the public is not misled by such false and distorted news leading to undesirable conclusions.”

However, the affidavit said the government had passed an order for withdrawal of the criminal cases filed against all the petitioners “in the hope that the press and media would faithfully adhere to the laws of the country.”

The petitioners challenged Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code relating to the criminal defamation law as well as the defamation cases filed against them. They challenged the vires of Sec. 499 of the IPC in so far as it related to statements made with respect to the conduct of public functionaries. .

They contended that filing of hundreds of defamation cases against newspapers and magazines at the cost of the State exchequer had a “chilling effect” on the functioning of the media. In the absence of adequate safeguards either in the IPC or in the Criminal Procedure Code, Sec. 499 IPC was “being misused by those in power.”

The petitioners said Sec. 499 when tested against the right of free speech guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution constituted an “unreasonable impediment.” Further, the spate of defamation cases slapped against the petitioners on innocuous reports and 100 other cases against the other media persons showed the attempt of the State government “to subvert the independence of the media and subjugate it through such cases.”

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