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Free press not an absolute right: SC

‘Cannot be used by media to injure individual’s reputation’

The Supreme Court on Friday said a free press is the heart and soul of political intercourse and is a public educator, but this freedom is not absolute and cannot be used by the media to cause injury to an individual’s precious reputation.

In its judgment upholding the constitutional validity of criminal defamation, a Bench of Justice Dipak Misra and P.C. Pant revisited the apex court’s judgments on the importance of media’s freedom of speech and expression in a vibrant democracy.

It even calls the media a “public educator”, making formal and non-formal education possible at a large-scale, particularly in the developing world.

But the court held that the press has to also observe “reasonable restrictions” and its purpose is to “advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments.”

While in one breath saying that “freedom of speech and expression is regarded as the first condition of liberty,” the court in the next reins in this liberty by cautioning that free speech is not an “absolute value under our Constitution.” The court agrees that the voice of dissent or disagreement has to be respected and regarded and not to be scuttled as “unpalatable criticism.”

The judgment notes the arguments of senior advocate Sanjay Hegde who submitted that criminal defamation in terms of the press has a chilling effect leading to suppressing a permissible campaign.

Threat of prosecution

“The threat of prosecution alone is enough to suppress the truth being published, and also the investigating journalism which is necessary in a democracy,” Mr. Hegde argued.

But the judgment also gives equal space to senior advocate M.N. Krishnamani who argued that “journalists are in no better position than any other person.”

“They have no greater freedom than others to make any imputations or allegations sufficient to ruin the reputation of a citizen. A news item has the potentiality of bringing doomsday for an individual. Editors have to take the responsibility of everything they publish and to maintain the integrity of published records. It can cause far-reaching consequences in an individual and country’s life,” Mr. Krishnamani argued.

The court records submissions that “reckless defamatory comments are unacceptable” as the press has “great power in impressing minds.”

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