Case BriefsHigh Courts

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]

Case BriefsCOVID 19High Courts

Bombay High Court: Prasanna B. Varale, J. took cognizance of the amendment made in the Government Order whereby door-to-door delivery of newspapers has been completely prohibited in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and in all containment zones as may be decided by the District Magistrates.

Earlier, by its order dated 20-4-2020, the High Court had taken suo motu cognizance of the Government’s decision to allow printing of newspapers but banning distribution thereof, after which the High Court had issued notice to the State Government. In that order of 20th April, the Court had specifically observed that the State Government, having regard to the spread of coronavirus, can certainly consider restricting door-to-door delivery of newspapers in particular areas.

Pursuant the Court’s order, the State Government made an amendment in its earlier order and directed that print media is exempted from lockdown from 20-4-2020. Wherever door-to-door delivery is done, it shall be with the knowledge of the receiver and the newspaper delivery personal shall wear mask and use hand sanitizer and maintain social distancing. However, it was further directed that door-to-door delivery of newspapers and magazines is prohibited in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and in all containment zones as may be decided by the District Magistrates. In these areas, they may be sold through the establishments that are exempted under the order dated 17.04.2020.

Making an attempt to provide some logic or reason for the said amendment, D.R. Kale, the Government Pleader, relied on the following statement in affidavit in reply filed by the State:

“I say that according to the experts, COVID-19 virus can stay on various surfaces for a considerable amount of time and the newspaper is something that will be passed on by hand to hand by various people which can increases the chances of infection spreading to more number of people …”

According to the Court, this was only a general and sweeping statement. There is no reference to any comment of the experts. On the contrary, the statements of certain experts published in newspapers are to the effect that there is no need to carry an impression that newspaper is a medium for spread of coronavirus. The High Court observed that no logical explanation is forthcoming to explain the blanket ban imposed on door-to-door delivery of newspapers. It was also noted that as per certain news items, the readership as well as average time spent for reading newspapers has increased during the lockdown period. The Court said:

“On the backdrop of above referred facts, one fails to understand the logic behind the statement made in affidavit in reply in para-9 that the newspaper is something that will be passed on by hand to hand by various people which can increases the chances of infection spreading to more number of people.”

Amicus Curiae, Satyajit Bora, submitted that recently, the Madras High Court has dismissed a petition that sought a ban on distribution of newspapers. He prayed for an amendment to the petition so as to place a copy of the Madras High Court’s order as well as to raise certain grounds and add prayers in view of the affidavit in reply filed by the State. The oral prayer for amendment was allowed by the Court.

The Government Pleader also sought time to file an additional affidavit in reply, on which the Court granted 3 week’s time. The matter will be next heard on 11th June 2020. [High Court of Bombay v. State of Maharashtra, Suo Motu PIL (St.) No. 10567 of 2020, dated 27-4-2020]