On March 8, a civil court in Bengaluru restrained 46 media organisations from reporting on any “defamatory opinion” against Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Madal Virupakshappa and his son Prashanth Kumar, who have been accused of taking bribes.
Kumar, a government officer, was allegedly caught taking a bribe of Rs 40 lakh on March 2. The next day, when the state’s Lokayukta Police raided Kumar’s house, they found Rs 6 crore in cash. Several news channels broadcasted that Virupakshappa and his son were involved in corruption scandals.
The court noted that the matter was being investigated and the reporting by the media was leading to the character assassination of the plaintiff. It told media organisations to only report the “facts” and not draw any inferences.
This was an interim order passed by the court ex-parte, or without hearing the other side. The trend seems to have become more noticeable in the past few years.
Several legal commentators believe that these orders result from a long history of courts in Karnataka granting similar relief. “It started with a case from 1986,” said senior advocate BT Venkatesh.
In that case, BN Garudachar, who was then the Karnataka director general of police, got an interim order restraining politician AK Subbaiah from making defamatory statements about him.
“The trend continues even today,” Venkatesh said. He added that several people in Karnataka, including politicians and gangsters, sought gag orders against journalists.
Bengaluru-based court reporter Mustafa Plumber explained that since these orders are mostly ex-parte, “media houses do not get the opportunity to contest these orders”.
He added: “Further, these orders are not challenged before higher courts since media houses are not substantially affected by them. It only means that they do not have to do that one story.”
But this tendency of courts to grant injunctions and the fact that these orders go unchallenged feeds future litigation, lawyers point out.
More recently, such injunctions have been granted overwhelmingly in favour of politiciansruling Bharatiya Janata Party politicians. The News Minute reported that since 2014, at least 13 politicians from the party had secured interim injunctions restraining media houses from reporting anything defamatory about them. Eight of these instances were between March and August 2021.
In March 2021, politician Ramesh Jarkiholi had to step down as the Karnataka water resource minister after television channels aired an allegedly unverified sex tape featuring him.
Following this, six ministers approached a civil court in Bengaluru saying there was news that similar tapes existed of 19 other ministers and politicians and these could “surface any time”.
The court ordered the media not to report on anything that was unverified or defamatory against these six politicians, and also prohibited media organisations from airing any footage of the tapes in case they were released.
Bureaucrats, businesses and politicians
These orders are not restricted to the state’s current ruling party. In February, a civil court in Bengaluru passed an order restraining police officer D Roopa Moudgil and 59 media houses from publishing any defamatory content against bureaucrat Rohini Sindhuri, after the two were involved in a public argument on social media.
Mudgil, an officer of the Indian Police Services, had allegedly shared personal pictures of Sindhuri on social media, claiming that the bureaucrat had violated service rules.
Previously, in 2015, two officers of the Indian Administrative Services had obtained injunctions against the media – one was regarding the suicide of an officer and the second related to corruption allegations.
Opposition leaders have also been able to obtain similar orders from courts. In January, Congress leader and former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah got an injunction against the release of a book that allegedly contained defamatory material against the leader and his son. Siddaramaiah claimed that this book was written to defame him ahead of the Karnataka Assembly elections that are due later this year.
Members of religious organisations, too, have initiated such cases. In a case brought by a former chairman of the Wakf Board Committee in November, a Bengaluru civil court stopped the publication and sale of a book on Tipu Sultan that allegedly defamed Muslims. The order was vacated in December.
Even businesses have got gag orders issued against the media. In July, Dipali Sikand, the owner of a resort in Tamil Nadu, got a civil court in Bengaluru to order social media platforms to take down defamatory content against some politicians, journalists and two Supreme Court judges.
A photo shared by Sikand, of prominent journalists and politicians having lunch at her resort, was falsely shared with the claim that the group was dining with two Supreme Court judges as part of a “naxal gang” – a pejorative term used to refer to those with dissenting opinions. This happened after the judges had criticised former BJP leader Nupur Sharma for her remarks against Prophet Muhammad.
In November, a Bengaluru court ordered a temporary takedown of the Twitter handles of the Indian National Congress and the Bharat Jodo Yatra after music company MRT Music filed a case claiming that the party had played copyrighted songs at a rally and shared them on social media. The Karnataka High Court reversed the order within a day.
Previously, in 2019, a Bengaluru civil court restrained media publication Entrackr from publishing defamatory content against the parenting advice app Healofy.
The sensational nature of reporting in Karnataka, especially by television channels, also prompts courts to step in.
“Some judges here are extremely wary of the media and how it can damage a person’s reputation,” said Bengaluru based lawyer Mohammed Afeef, who has been involved in some of these defamation cases.
Media professionals, too, say that the reporting in Karnataka, especially television channels, can be callous. “The local media can take one issue and report on it in a very pointed and objectionable manner,” said Bengaluru court reporter Plumber.
Anusha Sood Ravi, a Bengaluru-based journalist, pointed out that often channels run “sex tapes” with minimal editing and masking. “It could pass off as explicit sexual content,” said Ravi, political editor at South First. “This also raises questions about media ethics.”
The News Minute Editorial Head (Reporting) Pooja Prasanna also criticised the way television channels broadcast news: “If you look at the coverage the Kannada channels give [to the sex tape scandals], their lines and promos, that could be one factor that pushes judges to give these injunctions.”
Such tapes have been a common tool for political rivalries. The Print reported that there had been at least 10 “sex scandals” in Karnataka in the last two decades.
Sensationalist coverage becomes a means for TRP, or television rating points, and the public interest angle, if any, in such scandals gets lost, said Prasanna. However, she said that even so, such coverage did not justify such rampant injunctions.
While the gag might only be on defamatory content, allowing for court proceedings and first information reports to be reported, without drawing any inferences from them, sometimes it might take the shape of a blanket ban from reporting on a politician altogether. “This stops the rest of us who want to report on these things responsibly,” said Prasanna.