CHENNAI: In a direct blow to the state machinery for attempting to curtail media freedom through criminal defamation complaints, the Madras high court has asserted that such attempts are a direct invasion of the right to freedom of expression and speech guaranteed under the Constitution.
Justice M Dhandapani, quashing two criminal defamation complaints registered against the Times of India and a Tamil daily, said, “While it is the duty of the court to safeguard the interests of those persons holding public office from being defamed for discharging their public functions, equally, citizens should also be safeguarded from the governmental machinery against malicious prosecution.”
The entire democratic polity achieves a high only when there is an uncompromising print/visual media which takes to the citizens of the country the happenings around them, he said. “Derailing the print media from publishing content, which in no way can be termed defamatory, by initiating prosecution, is nothing but an attack on the rights enshrined under the Constitution,” the judge added.
The criminal complaints against TOI and the Tamil daily “Dina Malar” were filed in 2014 by the AIADMK government led by the then chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, for publishing an interview of BJP member Subramanian Swamy.
Alleging that the newspapers were guilty of criminal defamation by publishing derogatory statements made by Swamy in the interview, the government lodged the complaint. Aggrieved, the newspapers moved the high court.
Allowing the pleas, the judge held that the government’s action against the petitioners for carrying the interview was a direct invasion of the right of freedom of speech and expression that cannot be curtailed by invocation of Section 499 (criminal defamation) of the IPC.
In the present case, the court said, the print media, having merely reported the interview of Swamy without adding anything to it, which is even evident from the government orders, cannot be said to have published material that has harmed the reputation of the office of the chief minister in respect of her conduct in the discharge of her public functions.
“Before parting with the case, one other important fact which has attracted the attention of this court also needs to be noted here. The government orders sanctioning prosecution against media houses were issued within a span of 24 hours of the news articles being published. This court, even at the outset, is not imputing any malice in the action of the prosecution. However, the speed with which such prosecution has been initiated is an issue which passes through the mind of this court,” Justice Dhandapani said.


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