Courts cannot be unmindful of purpose sting operations serve in society while dealing with defamation claims

Indian Potash Ltd Vs Media Contents and Communication Services Pvt Ltd and Anr

Delhi HC

02/05/2019

CS(OS) No.1717/2007

About/from the judgment:

Sting operations occupy a place of their own and are today an important part of the society.

 

"Awarding compensation / damages for defamation against persons, who at their own cost, inconvenience and risk of being beaten up on their cover being blown, carry out such sting operations, will act as a deterrent and ultimately result in the society being deprived of the benefit thereof", observed the Court.

 

The suit was filed by Indian Potash Ltd(IPL), a central government undertaking, claiming damages of Rs 11 crores from the owner, editor and reporters of Star News.

 

The subject of the controversy was a program aired by Star News on April 27/28, 2007, which had shown that IPL was selling aduletarted milk in Western UP.

 

An officer of the company, A K Srivastava, was caught in a hidden camera saying that the company mixed prohibited chemicals in the milk supplied by it in Western UP. The company officers were recorded in the sting video by the journalists who portrayed themselves to be engaged in the business of milk interested in tips for adulteration.

 

Star News stated in defense that the program was telecast with public interest in mind to bring to public scrutiny the malpractices of dairy industry.

 

At the outset, the Court noted that the program had not put any blame on the plaintiff-company as such, but had highlighted that some of its employees are indulging in malpractices. In fact, in its first response, the company wrote to the channel seeking details of the expose and assured that proper action will be taken to ensure transparency.

 

But later, the senior management of the company chose to initiate legal proceedings against the TV channel.

 

"...though initially in email dated 28th April, 2007 expressed intent to associate with defendants to enquire and punish its guilty employees, rather than being interested in finding out whether any of its junior employees handling the milk business at the spot, at least one of whom figured in the telecast, understood by the plaintiff also as a sting operation, were involved in adulteration, was more interested in spending money on this litigation, paying court fees of Rs.10,76,000/- besides lawyers fees and other expenses", observed the court regarding the turn of events.

 

The Court then proceeded to comment on the role played by sting operations:

"Sting operations, possible in the recent past, are an outcome of advancement in technology which permits video and audio recording, without the target person coming to know. Such sting operations occupy a place of their own and are today an important part of the society. Misdeeds are always clandestine, shrouded in secrecy and rarely proved owing to complexity of all involved therein, and with hardly any evidence. None indulging in such misdeeds, admits thereto, least to journalists and media persons. The true picture is presented, by laying a trap...The only way to bring the same in the public glare is through such sting operations which even though may not result in punishing the guilty but at least has the effect of stopping or suspending the misdeeds, even if for a short time".

 

The Court added that the purpose served by sting operations in society has to be kept in mind while dealing with defamation cases arising out of it:

"Courts, while dealing with claims for defamation from such sting operations, cannot be unmindful of the purpose they serve in the society. Awarding compensation / damages for defamation against persons, who at their own cost, inconvenience and risk of being beaten up on their cover being blown, carry out such sting operations, will act as a deterrent and ultimately result in the society being deprived of the benefit thereof."

 

"Though the press and the media are not exempt or always protected from the general law relating to defamation but it is to be kept in mind that defamation law is not to be used to gag, silence, suppress and subjugate press and the media. It cannot be forgotten that the law of defamation has potential to be an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution of India and the Courts owe a duty to ensure that the law of defamation is not so exploited".

 

The Court further said "If a person or press or media were put under a fear of being sued, they will not express himself / themselves freely on public issues and this would chill public debate and enquiry".

 

No loss proved

 

The Court also noted that the plaintiff had not proved that it had suffered any loss due to the telecast.

 

There was no whisper in the plaint that the esteem in which the plaintiff is held has fallen in any manner whatsoever in the eyes of any person dealing with the plaintiff or that any person dealing with the plaintiff has refused to deal with the plaintiff or has enquired from the plaintiff of what was attributed to it or doubted the plaintiff.

 

"There can be no claim for compensation for defamation without defamation. For a claim for compensation on account of defamation being made, it is essential, even if actual loss cannot be pleaded, to state particulars of the difficulties which the plaintiff has had to face in its dealings on account of others suspecting the plaintiff", court observed.

 

The Court added that the plaintiff, being a government instrumentality, had a higher constitutional mandate and criticized it for identifying itself with its employees.

 

"The plaintiff, as per its own averments is performing a public function of marketing and sale promotion of potassic and non-potassic fertilizers and their distribution and of assisting the dairy owners market their milk produce. However the plaintiff, in instituting the suit as aforesaid, has identified itself with its employees.

 

"It is not for the government to sue for defamation of its employees. If at all anybody had a right to sue for defamation, it was A.K. Shrivastav and not the plaintiff. The plaintiff, in its zeal to protect its employees including A.K. Shrivastav from any enquiry, has chosen to spend public monies running into lacs of rupees in filing and pursuing this suit for defamation and which as aforesaid does not behove a governmental company", observed the Court, while dismissing the suit.

Read the Judgment

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