Tamil Nadu

HC says no to slapping of criminal defamation cases against media houses

Quashes GOs issued to prosecute two dailies during Jayalalithaa’s tenure

Criminal defamation cases cannot be slapped by the State against media houses even for having published interviews and statements issued by politicians trading charges against those in power for acts performed by the latter purely in their personal capacity and without any reference to discharge of public functions, the Madras High Court has held.

Justice M. Dhandapani ruled so while quashing two Government Orders, issued in September 2014, for prosecuting the Resident Editor and branch head of an English newspaper and the publisher of a Tamil daily for having published the contents of a letter written by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In the letter, Mr. Swamy had claimed that the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was rattled by his success in getting Indian fishermen released from Sri Lanka. He also accused her of appropriating all his achievements on issues related to Mullaperiyar dam, installation of Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar’s statue in Parliament and the 2G spectrum scam.

“The sum and substance of the above clearly reveal that the statements, which are alleged to be defamatory, are not against any public function discharged by the said individual in her official capacity but it is a criticism levelled against Dr. Jayalalithaa in her personal capacity. The print media has simply carried the statements made by Dr. Swamy.

“The petitioners (printers and publishers) have not imputed any allegations or made false accusations against Dr. Jayalalithaa nor against the public office held by the individual. Rather, it is clear not only from a reading of the news item published by the petitioners, but also the extracted portion in the Government Orders, that it is a personal criticism,” the judge said.

He recalled that the Supreme Court in R. Rajagopal versus State of Tamil Nadu (1994) had held that while defending defamation cases, it would be enough for members of the press or media to prove that they had acted after a reasonable verification of the facts and that it was not necessary for them to prove that their content was nothing but truth.

Allowing three writ petitions challenging the GOs, the judge said: “The action of the State in initiating prosecution against the petitioners for their act of publishing the statement of Dr. Swamy is a direct invasion into the right of freedom of speech and expression which cannot be curtailed by invocation of Section 499 (criminal defamation) of Indian Penal Code.

“Recognising the freedom of the press to bring to the people the happenings in and around them is the fulcrum of a democratic functioning of the State. Clogging the said system by curtailing the freedom is nothing but a direct invasion on the freedom enshrined in Article 19 (1) of the Constitution.

“While it is the duty of the court to safeguard the interests of those holding public office from being defamed for discharge of their public functions, equally, the citizens have also to be safeguarded from malicious prosecution by the State machinery.”

Justice Dhandapani also took strong exception to the two GOs having been issued within 24 hours of the publication of the news articles. “The sanction for prosecution, according to this court, has been granted at such a pace in which haste cannot be ruled out. Haste could also be concomitant to non-application of mind.

“Application of mind in grant of sanction is a foremost necessity. However, the speed with which the sanction for prosecution has been granted leaves not only a lot to be said but equally leaves a bitter taste, however, exercising judicial restraint, this court restrains itself from elaborating it any further.”

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 9:29:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/hc-says-no-to-slapping-of-criminal-defamation-cases-against-media-houses/article30814690.ece

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