Tamil Nadu

Jayalalithaa health | Madras High Court quashes defamation proceedings against web portal

The Madras High Court has quashed criminal defamation proceedings initiated by the State government against the chairman, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and reporter of Rediff.com for carrying a news article on July 10, 2015 accusing the media of not reporting widely about the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s failing health.

Justice P.N. Prakash said the fact that Jayalalithaa was not keeping well became very obvious on May 23, 2015 when the whole world watched the unprecedented act of her entire Cabinet of 28 Ministers take oath in two batches, in a ceremony that hardly lasted for 30 minutes, instead of the usual practice of taking oath individually.

No basis

The judge agreed with senior counsel R. Shunmugasundaram, representing the chairman and employees of the web portal, that the criminal defamation proceedings initiated against them in 2015 had no leg to stand on. He quashed the defamation proceedings launched through the City Public Prosecutor.

The judge also pointed out that the news article in the web portal had only found fault with the mainstream media for not reporting about Jayalalithaa’s health condition and it did not refer to any particular ailment suffered by her or made any disparaging remark about her health. It only highlighted that Jayalalithaa was not very active.

The article stated that she had been visiting the Secretariat only twice a week after assuming office as Chief Minister for the second time in May 2015 and did not remain there for more than 30 minutes. The brief window was used to inaugurate government schemes through video conference and even the prestigious Chennai Metro was inaugurated that way. There was absolutely no interaction with the media and only select television crews as well as photographers were allowed to capture the Chief Minister visually.

“Surprisingly, there has not been even a murmur of protest from any of the media outlets for the nauseating development,” the article stated and claimed that her poor health had affected government administration.

Pending files

Opposing the quash petition, State Public Prosecutor A. Natarajan pointed out that the news article had quoted an anonymous IAS officer to have said that files used to move even when a “dummy” government under the Chief Ministership of O. Panneerselvam (now Deputy Chief Minister) was in place whereas an absolute paralysis was staring at them due to Jayalalithaa’s failing health.

He argued that this anonymous quote was untrue and defamatory. However, Justice Prakash brushed aside the argument on the ground that “an allegedly defamatory article must be read as a whole and not in bits and pieces. An assessment of the state of affairs of the administration at a given point of time cannot amount to defamation”.

The judge went on to state: “Right to free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is sacrosanct though it can be restricted on the grounds set out in Article 19(2). The press has a duty to keep the public informed about the happenings in the administration of the State. If this freedom is stifled, rumours and gossips will masquerade as truth.”

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 2:04:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/hc-quashes-proceedings-against-web-portal/article32884119.ece

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