No point in singing paeans to freedom of press if one cannot go to its rescue: HC

Courts cannot desert their duty to protect fundamental rights

Updated - May 07, 2020 05:55 pm IST

Published - May 07, 2020 12:13 am IST - CHENNAI

There is no point in singing paeans to freedom of press if one cannot go to its rescue when the said right is faced with a serious threat and courts of law can never desert their duty when it comes to protection of fundamental rights, the Madras High Court has said.

Justice G.R. Swaminathan wrote: “When freedom of press is at stake, higher judiciary is obliged to exercise not only its inherent power but also exert itself a bit. An unused power is a useless tinsel. There is no point in merely saying that a free press is the foundation of democracy.”

The judge observed so while quashing a criminal defamation case filed against freelance journalist Sandhya Ravishakar by V.V. Minerals, a beach sand mining firm. He said, the High Court must necessarily examine materials and quash a frivolous case without forcing the accused to undergo the ordeal of trial.

“Such an activist role will have to be played by the higher judiciary because it is a matter of record that criminal defamation proceedings have become a tool of intimidation for corporate bodies and powerful politicians whose pockets are tunnel deep and whose hands are long enough that even media houses with good resources have capitulated,” he added.

Though the criminal defamation case had been filed against the journalist’s husband as well as the Editor of a news daily in which her article regarding illegal mining of minerals was published, the judge pointed out that the complainant firm had failed to prosecute the Editor by name.

He also rejected the claim of the complainant that a television news channel, associated with it, had rejected a job application preferred by the husband of the journalist and therefore he had instigated her to write the offending article accusing the company of illegal mining.

Justice Swaminathan said: “If I accept the contention of the complainant’s counsel, that would undermine the agency of the woman concerned. This concept of agency has considerable philosophical import and was evolved by the feminists during the last century.

“The complainant wants me to assume that the third petitioner (woman journalist) lacks personal autonomy. The third petitioner definitely has the capacity to act independently and make her own free choice. I cannot assume that the third petitioner was a pawn or tool at the hands of her husband. Her innate dignity can be upheld only by deleting the fourth petitioner (husband) from the array of accused.”

Referring to a catena of court rulings on the subject, the judge said, beach sand minerals were obviously public properties and hence a news article penned regarding their alleged illegal mining, after obtaining the views of the mineral company too, would certainly fall within an exception to Section 499 (criminal defamation) of Indian Penal Code.

He ultimately held that institution of the criminal defamation case was an abuse of process of the court.

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