‘State cannot use defamation to throttle democracy’, says Madras HC, quashes 28 cases against media
Justice Abdul Quddhose observed that constitutional functionaries must be able to face criticism since they owed a solemn duty to the people.
The Madras High Court on Thursday quashed 28 criminal defamation proceedings filed against various media organisations by the erstwhile Jayalalithaa government, saying public servants and constitutional functionaries cannot be allowed to misuse the law to settle political scores with adversaries, LiveLaw reported.
The court was hearing a set of petitions filed by the media houses to quash the proceedings against them for news reports published between 2011-’13. Those who filed the petitions include The Hindu, The Times of India and Tamil newspapers Dinakaran, Dinamalar, Tamil Murasu and Murasoli.
Justice Abdul Quddhose made pertinent observations about state-sanctioned defamation cases and said public servants and constitutional functionaries must be able to face criticism since they owed a solemn duty to the people. “The state cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy”, the court said in its 152-page judgement. “The role of any newspaper is only to disseminate the news that is happening around. You cannot treat it as defamation even if there are some inaccuracies in the report. Criminal defamation is much more than that i.e the imputation must be made recklessly with malice.”
The court also said that the state government cannot be “impulsive” to launch prosecution. “If the state becomes an impulsive prosecutor in criminal defamation matters, that too, in an era of social media where there are scores of abusive contents made against public figures, the sessions court will get clogged with innumerable matters which are sometimes vindictive in nature only to settle scores with Opposition political parties,” it added.
The judge advised public prosecutors to apply their mind independently, conduct a case with utmost fairness and to remember that “prosecution does not mean persecution”.
Similarly, Quddhose said trial courts should also apply their judicial mind to materials available on record and issue summons to the accused only if they were satisfied that the “core ingredients” required for taking cognisance of a criminal defamation complaint against the state had been made out. “This menace will have to be curbed and nipped in the bud,” the judge said, according to Bar and Bench.
The court pointed out that the state must act like a parent of all its citizens before invoking the law of defamation. “It is normal for some parents to face vituperative insults from their children,” it added. “Despite those insults, parents don’t disown their children quite easily. They always have the hope that their children will mend themselves in the near future. Only in rarest of rare cases when the character and behaviour of their children is irretrievably broken down and irreconcilable, the parents disown them.”
On May 6, the Madras High Court had quashed a criminal defamation case filed against journalist Sandhya Ravishankar and her husband Prem Shankar by VV Minerals, a beach sand mining firm. The court had then made important 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 had observed.