The Madras High Court on Wednesday quashed a criminal defamation case filed against journalist Sandhya Ravishankar and her husband Prem Shankar by VV Minerals, a beach sand mining firm, Live Law reported. The case was filed against Ravishankar for an article published by the Economic Times on illegal beach sand mining of atomic minerals in Tamil Nadu in 2015.
The court also made pertinent observations about the role of the judiciary in safeguarding the freedom of press. “I am clearly of the view that there is no point in merely singing paeans to freedom of press, if one cannot go to its rescue when the said right is faced with a serious threat,” Justice GR Swaminathan said. “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 said the 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,” Swaminathan added.
The court also rejected the complainant’s argument that the case involved factual aspects that necessarily had to go to trial and the claim that Ravishankar wrote the article at the behest of her husband. “If I accept the contention of the complainant’s counsel, that would undermine the agency of the woman concerned,” the judgment said. “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 lacks personal autonomy. The third petitioner definitely has the capacity to act independently and make her own free choice.”
The judge ruled that beach sand minerals were public properties and therefore an article written regarding their alleged illegal mining, after obtaining the views of the mineral company, would fall within an exception to Section 499 (criminal defamation) of Indian Penal Code.
Swaminathan said that institution of the impugned criminal defamation complaint was an abuse of process of the court. “The sentinel must ever be alert to danger and charge forth when required,” the judge added. “The court can never desert its duty when it comes to protection of fundamental rights. Those observations will apply to the entire higher judiciary.”