Batting for free speech: On filing of defamation cases against press

Reckless filing of criminal defamation cases against the press must end

Updated - May 26, 2020 12:53 pm IST

Published - May 26, 2020 12:02 am IST

A feature of public life in Tamil Nadu in the last three decades has been the indiscriminate institution of criminal defamation proceedings against Opposition leaders and the media. It is no surprise, then, that the most comprehensive judgment on the limits of the State’s power to prosecute members of the press for defamation should come from the Madras High Court . The verdict of Justice Abdul Quddhose, quashing a series of defamation complaints filed since 2011-12, is remarkable for applying a set of principles that would firmly deter the hasty and ill-advised resort to State-funded prosecution on behalf of public servants. The first principle is that the State should not impulsively invoke provisions in the CrPC to get its public prosecutor to file defamation complaints in response to every report that contains criticism. The court deems such impulsive actions as amounting to throttling democracy. It advises the government to have a higher threshold for invoking defamation provisions. It notes that each time a public servant feels defamed by a press report, it does not automatically give rise to a cause for asking the public prosecutor to initiate proceedings on her behalf. The statutory distinction between defaming a public servant as a person and as the State itself being defamed has to be maintained.

Justice Quddhose goes on to fault the government for according sanction to the initiation of cases through the prosecutors without explaining how the State has been defamed. He cautions prosecutors against acting like a post office, noting that their role is to scrutinise the material independently to see if the offence has been made out, and if so, whether it relates to a public servant’s conduct in the course of discharging official functions or not before filing a complaint. So, the court finds that many were cases in which public servants ought to have filed individual cases. An earlier Madras High Court ruling noted that an essential ingredient of criminal defamation must be that an imputation was actuated by malice, or with reckless disregard for the truth. A recent judgment by Justice G.R. Swaminathan enunciated what is known in the United States as the ‘Sullivan’ rule of ‘actual malice’. While quashing a private complaint against a journalist and a newspaper, the judge said two of the exceptions to defamation given in Section 499 pertained to ‘public conduct of public servants’ and ‘conduct of any person on any public question’. This implied that the legislature itself believed that unless it is demonstrated that reporting on a public servant’s conduct or on a public question was vitiated by malice, the question of defamation does not arise and that even inaccuracies in reporting need not occasion a prosecution for defamation. Within a matter of days, the HC has struck two blows for free speech and press freedom.

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