Madras High Court: While answering important questions related to freedom of press; meaning of criminal defamation against the State and requisites of Section 199(2) of Criminal Procedure Code, the Single Judge Bench of Abdul Quddhose, J., observed that, application of mind by the State to the materials placed on record before granting sanction to the public prosecutor for launching prosecution under Section 199(4) CrPC is a necessary and that the State cannot act on an impulse or a whim. Moreover public prosecutor must independently assess the materials available on record and must independently take a view as to the availability of sufficient materials to launch prosecution on behalf of the State under Section 199 (2) CrPC.
As per the facts of the case, writ petitions were filed by several reputed editors challenging the Order launching the prosecution for criminal defamation against them by the State Government under Section 499 of Penal Code, 1860 and Section 199(2) of CrPC. The State Government of Tamil Nadu initiated the proceedings after the newspapers published articles against the then Chief Minister, J. Jayalalitha, which were considered defamatory in nature.
The counsel for the petitioners P.S. Raman and M.S. Murali, contended that freedom of press is considered a foundation for proper functioning of democracy and criticism should not be viewed as defamation, because in a free democratic society, those who are responsible for public administration should be open to criticism and citizens have a legitimate right to know the conduct of public officials as they have an influential role in society. It was further contended that the articles in question, did not pertain to the conduct of the public functionary in the discharge of his/her public functions; the sanction for prosecution was given in total disregard of Section 199(2); and the impugned sanction had been accorded by total non-application of mind. The State Government represented by S.R. Rajagopalan, A.A.G, denied the petitioner’s argument of non- application of mind while according the sanction to prosecute the editors and the newspapers.
Perusing the arguments, the Court at length discussed various aspects of criminal defamation enumerated under Chapter XXI, Sections 499-502 of IPC and various Supreme Court decisions on the point. The Court observed that as per IPC, “the person charged for defamation must have the intention to harm the reputation of the person against whom words have been spoken or any article has been published by him.” The Court further noted that criminal defamation is a non-cognizable offence under the Criminal Procedure Code; and the only non-cognizable offence in the Indian Penal Code having a large number of exceptions to any offence which indicates the legislative intent to restrict the usage of the criminal defamation law. The Court went on to say that “State should not be impulsive like an ordinary citizen in defamation matters and invoke Section 199(2) CrPC to throttle democracy”. However, the Court also pointed out that media houses too have a responsibility to remove the decay that is slowly creeping into the way news is being reported or published. The Court finally concluded the judgment by allowing the writ petitions as none of the prosecutions fell under the category of Section 199(2) CrPC. [.Thiru N. Ram v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine Mad 1023 , decided on 21-05-2020]