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The Madras High Court recently made a strong case in favour of the freedom of the press and media, noting that unless functions of the fourth estate are safeguarded, India may as well become a Nazi State.
Justice PN Prakash made pertinent observations to this effect while quashing defamation proceedings initiated in 2012 against the Tamil edition of weekly magazine, India Today. As noted in his judgment,
“India is a vibrant democracy and the fourth estate is indubitably an indispensable part of it. If the voice of the fourth estate is stifled in this manner, India will become a Nazi State and the hard labour of our freedom fighters and makers of our Constitution will go down the drain.“
Justice Prakash emphasised that the freedom of the press should be protected, given its role in a democracy, even if there are occasional transgressions.
“…the Press has got a solemn duty to place all the concatenation of events, both recent past and distant past, concerning political parties and pubic figures, for public consumption and for refreshing the otherwise short public memory. For doing this, if the Press is gagged, democracy in this country will be in utter peril…There may be some occasional transgressions by the Press, however, in the larger interest of sustaining democracy, those aberrations deserve to be ignored.“
Further, the Court also observed that such exposure is to be expected when a person voluntarily opts to become a public figure.
“Nobody is invited with platters for coming into public life. Therefore, after voluntarily coming into public life, one cannot be heard to feign sensitiveness and trample the Press for no good reason. This Constitutional Court will be failing in its duty if such attempts by the mighty State are not resisted.“
The state had brought the case against India Today in objection to an article which had appeared indicating that former AIADMK member, VK Sasikala, may have influenced the decision to remove the then state revenue minister, KA Sengottaiyan from the AIADMK cabinet in 2012. The state had contended that the same amounted to an imputation which also harms the reputation of former Chief Minister and AIADMK head, J Jayalalithaa.
However, the Court disagreed, holding that,
“On a reading of the aforesaid portions, this Court is not able to find even an iota of material to show that there is any imputation intending to harm the reputation of Jayalalitha, the then Hon’ble Chief Minister. However, the learned Public Prosecutor submitted that on a reading of the entire article, the public could draw an inference that Sengottaiyan was removed from the Ministership only at the instance of Sasikala and this would amount to imputation…”
The Court also noted that the prosecutor’s above submission was not originally part of the complaint. That being the case, Justice Prakash stated that it is trite that the complainant cannot build up a case beyond the allegations in the complaint. In any case, he noted that,
“Even on a reading of the entire article, this Court is not able to draw such an inference as argued by the learned Public Prosecutor and further, it is not open to this Court to strain the language employed in the article or to read between the lines, for arriving at such an inference.“
Additionally, the Court also noted that this was not a case where Section 199 (2) to (4) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (concerning defamation of public state ministers) could be invoked, since the article only commented on the influence exercised by Sasikala.
“That apart, for maintaining a complaint of defamation via Section 199 (2) to (4) Cr.P.C., the imputation should be in respect of the conduct of the public servant in the discharge of his public functions. The impugned paragraphs extracted above only refer to the gaining of influence by Sasikala in the party affairs after a brief period of hybernation and coming back into the party fold.“
In view of these observations, the Court quashed the criminal proceedings initiated in the Sessions Court against India Today, terming the same to be an abuse of the process of law.
Read the Judgment: