Delhi High Court dismisses Mahua Moitra’s plea to restrain media from privacy infringement; upholds freedom of press

Delhi High Court

Delhi High Court: A petition was filed by Mahua Moitra (petitioner), a former elected Member of Parliament from Krishnanagar, West Bengal, affiliated with the All-India Trinamool Congress Party (AITC) seeking to direct ED (respondent 1) to prevent any information from being leaked, including any confidential, sensitive, unverified/unconfirmed information, to the print / electronic media in relation to the ongoing investigation / proceedings carried out by ED under which summons have been issued to the Petitioner. Subramonium Prasad, J., held that the leaking of information about the investigation involving the petitioner did not warrant intervention at the present stage, as it did not infringe upon her privacy or prejudice the investigation

The petitioner is a former elected Member of Parliament from Krishnanagar, West Bengal, affiliated with the All-India Trinamool Congress Party (AITC). The Enforcement Directorate (ED) (Respondent 1) investigated the petitioner for an alleged violation of the provisions of the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 (FEMA). The petitioner alleged that ED issued summons to her on 14-02-2024, requiring her to appear before them on 19-02-2024, and that news articles about these summons were published even before she received them. The petitioner claimed that sensitive information, including details of the investigation and summons issuance, was leaked to the media by the ED before she was officially informed. The petitioner filed a writ petition seeking relief from the court to prevent the leaking of any information related to the ongoing investigation to the media, citing violations of her right to privacy, dignity, and fair investigation.

Counsel for petitioner reiterated the allegations made in the writ petition, emphasizing the violation of the petitioner’s rights due to the leaking of sensitive information. The counsel presented legal arguments, citing previous judgments and the Advisory on Media Policy issued by the Government of India, to support the request for relief from the court. ED denies leaking sensitive information to the press, asserting compliance with the media policy advisory. The Union of India and ANI (respondent 3) also affirm adherence to the media policy advisory.

The Court acknowledged the importance of balancing freedom of press and expression with the right to privacy, particularly for public figures like the petitioner. The Court considered the nature of the information leaked and its potential impact on the petitioner’s privacy, dignity, and the fairness of the investigation. The Court reviewed the evidence, including news articles and statements from the involved parties, to determine the validity of the petitioner’s claims. The Court assessed the compliance of the respondents with the media policy advisory and evaluated whether the leaking of information constituted a violation of the petitioner’s rights.

The Court remarked that “The Petitioner herein is a former elected Member of Parliament and a public figure. The people are entitled to know about any news regarding the public figures. The accountability of persons who are public figures towards society is higher and they are subject to a higher level of public gaze and scrutiny. Since public figures are subject to closer scrutiny, unless the publications amount to harassment and invasion in private life of the individual public personality concerned or the family of the public personality, publications regarding the public life of such public personalities cannot be stopped from being published either by the Government or by the Orders of the Court”

The Court further remarked that “The newspaper cuttings do not deal with the private life of the Petitioner but are only reportings regarding the investigation that is being conducted against the Petitioner who is a public figure and same is unrelated to her private life. There is nothing in the news articles which would have the effect of invading into the privacy of the Petitioner or tend to impair the impartiality of the investigation or that it can have the effect of prejudicing the trial of the Petitioner in the event it is initiated. It is well settled that Gag Orders against the media can be passed only when it has the potential to prejudice any investigation or an ongoing trial.”

The Court affirmed that public figures are subject to a higher level of scrutiny and that publications regarding their public life cannot be stopped unless they constitute harassment or invasion of privacy. Thus, the Court concluded that the publications about the investigation involving the petitioner, being a public figure, do not infringe upon her privacy or prejudice the investigation.

[Mahua Moitra v. ED, 2024 SCC OnLine Del 1264, decided on 23-02-2024]

Advocates who appeared in this case :

Ms. Rebecca M. John, Sr. Advocate with Mr. Samudra Sarangi, Ms. Saloni Jain, Ms. Nitya Jain, Mr. Akash Jaini and Mr. Pravir Singh, Advocates for Mahua Moitra

Mr. Zoheb Hossain, Mr. Vivek Gurnani and Ms. Pranjal Tripathi, Advocates for R-1/ED. Mr. Chetan Sharma, ASG, Mr. Anurag Ahluwalia, CGSC with Mr. Amit Gupta, Mr. Vinay Yadav and Mr. Vikramaditya Singh, Advocates for R-2/UoI. Mr. Sidhant Kumar, Ms. Manyaa Chandok and Mr. Om Batra, Advocates for R-3/ANI. Ms. Mrinal Bharti, Mr. Manish Sekhari, Mr. Swapnil Srivastava and Ms. Sanjana Srivastava, Advocates for R-14. Mr. Pavan Narang, Mr. Himanshu Sethi and Ms. Aishwarya Chabra, Advocates for R-20.

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