The Supreme Court on Monday batted for the freedom of expression of journalists and and said that some instance of “wrong reporting” should not be held on to forever.
These observations assume significance in light of the Unique Identification Authority of India filing an FIR against journalist Rachna Khaira and the Chandigarh-based English newspaper The Tribune for exposing flaws in protection of personal data under Aadhaar, as well as the frequent filing of defamation cases by corporations and politicians against media organisations.
The court refused to revive a defamation case against senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai and Raghav Bahl – founder and former managing director of Network18 – and dismissed an appeal filed by Rahmat Fatima Amanullah – daughter of former Bihar minister Parveen Amanullah – against a Patna high court order. A bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud said: “You must allow freedom of expression by journalists. There may be some wrong reporting. But don’t hold on to it forever.”
The petitioner had challenged a September 2017 judgement by the Patna high court quashing cognisance taken by a magistrate of her defamation complaint. The petitioner had sought defamation proceedings against Sardesai – the editor-in-chief of the IBN network at the time – and Bahl for a 2011 report in which she was accused of being involved in a land allotment scam.
It was alleged by the petitioner that the television channel, in order to increase its TRP rating, had ran a story without verifying facts.
When her counsel said the news item was per se defamatory, Chief Justice Misra orally observed: “In a democracy you must learn to tolerate. The case has continued since 2011. The persons have spent a lot of time and money in defending themselves. Defamation may be constitutionally valid. But an alleged incorrect news item about a scam does not amount to defamation.”
The CJI further observed, “There could be some error or enthusiasm in reporting an alleged scam. But we must allow freedom of speech and expression to press at the fullest. There may be some wrong reporting. For that they need not be hauled up for defamation.”
Rahmat Fatima had alleged that on July 18, 2011 IBN7 (now News18) aired a story accusing her of being involved in a scam in the allotment of Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority land and made defamatory remarks against the parents of the complainant as well as the complainant.
The petitioner alleged that the news story in question had been broadcasted without care, caution or honesty – the ethics that every journalist is supposed to uphold. The high court, however, rejected the complaint and the present appeal is directed against this order.
The petitioner contended that the news item was telecast and shared with the public with the tacit knowledge and approval of the journalists, who did not verify the genuineness of the information. She further said it amounted to candidly suppressing facts and intentionally making false accusations, highlighting a “wholly imaginary, fabricated and distorted” picture regarding the land allotment. The high court had allowed the petition by Sardesai, who had challenged the magistrate’s decision to take cognisance of the defamation complaint filed by her.
The high court had said: “In this case, the offence of defamation is punishable with simple imprisonment for a term of two years. Hence, cognisance for its conspiracy, under Section 120B of IPC, without the consent of the state government or the district magistrate is bad in law as such not sustainable.”
“Accordingly, this court is of the view that there is no direct allegation of defamation against the petitioners and cognisance for the offence under Section 120B, that is criminal conspiracy to commit defamation, is barred under the specific provisions of sub-Section (2) of Section 196 of the of the Code of Criminal Procedure.”