Journalists do not enjoy special privilege or greater freedom to disrepute a citizen
Vijay Jawaharlalji Darda and Ors Vs State of Maharashtra and Anr
Bombay HC, Aurangabad Bench
CRIMINAL APPLICATION NO. 2032 OF 2009
About/from the judgment:
The High Court recently reiterated that journalists do not enjoy special privileges or a greater freedom than others to make imputations or allegations that are sufficient to ruin the reputation of a citizen.
Relying on the Supreme Court's observations in Sewakram v R K Karanjia, the Court observed,
“...journalists do not enjoy some kind of special privilege or have greater freedom than others to make imputations or allegations, sufficient to ruin the reputation of a citizen.”
The Court went on to remark,
“They (journalists) are in no better position than any other person. Truth of an allegation does not permit a justification under First exception unless it is proved to be in public good. The question whether or not it was for public good is a question of fact which needs to be proved like any other relevant fact."
The court made the observation while deciding a plea filed by journalists and the top management of a newspaper, "Lokmat". seeking to quash a defamation case pending against them.
The plea was filed before the Aurangabad Bench to quash charges levelled under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) based on a private defamation complaint filed by one Vijay Bapu Patil. The Jalgaon Magistrate court had directed the process to be issued against the Lokmat journalist and its management.
In his complaint, Patil had alleged that his reputation was harmed by a news item dated July 11, 2008, published on the front page of the Lokmat under a Marathi caption, loosely translated to mean ‘Attempt at Human Sacrifice’. The subheading read ‘A child survives death scare due to the alertness of villagers.’ The report in question referred to Patil and ten of his associates being assaulted by villagers on suspicion that they were taking a child to conduct a human sacrifice. The report mentioned that the villagers had taken them to a police station on this suspicion on July 10, 2008.
The High Court was informed that the police later discovered that Patil and his associates were not guilty and that the accompanying child was actually the nephew of one among the group. The police, therefore, did not register any complaint upon being appraised of the misunderstanding. The report of July 11, 2008, did not mention the same.
The following day (July 12, 2008), however, the newspaper carried another report based on the additional input from the police, divulging that no complaint had been registered against Patil and his associates.
All the same, Patil complained that many persons had started to spread rumours about the incident and questioned him about the contents of the news report. Aggrieved, he initiated defamation proceedings against the Chairman and Chief Editor of the Lokmat apart from the news reporter who prepared the report and his immediate Editor.
The Lokmat employees challenged the defamation process contending that the news item was a truthful report about the incidents that took place on July 10, 2008. It was further argued that no opinion was expressed in the piece and that a version of the complainant and his associates was also mentioned.
Appearing for the journalists, advocate Satyajit S Bora also denied holding any grudge against the complainant, contrary to Patil's contentions. Bora submitted that since the report was factually correct, the First exception (truthful reporting) and the Ninth exception (reporting for the public good) to the definition of Defamation under Section 499, IPC would apply.
However, on a perusal of the news piece, the Court found that the report appeared to be prima facie defamatory. Concurring with submissions put forth by Patil defending his defamation case, the Court noted that whether or not the contents of the report were truthful or for the public good was a matter of fact to be decided at trial.
In view of this, Justice Mangesh S Patil noted that it would be appropriate to leave it to the Magistrate to ascertain in the trial if the news item was published in good faith. As noted in his order,
"At this juncture, in my considered view, publication of such item which has the potential of putting the respondent no.2 to disrepute and to lower him in the esteems of the others is prima facie sufficient to constitute defamation as defined under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code and the doors cannot be shut at the threshold."
Justice Patil added,
"Publishing names of the respondent Vijay B Patil and his associates in a news item which could have been published by deleting their names is indeed a material circumstance which will have to be borne in the mind by the Magistrate during the trial.”
In view of these observations, the Court proceeded to dismiss the plea to quash the defamation case against the news reporter and his Editor. However, Justice Patil opined that the Chairman and Chief Editor need not be proceeded against in the matter, as they could not have had any direct role and responsibility in publishing the news item.
As a result, the criminal application was partly allowed as far as the Chairman and Chief Editor of the newspaper were concerned. The application to quash the case against the news reporter and his Editor was rejected.
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