state-cant-use-criminal-defamation-cases-to-throttle-democracy-madras-hc

Context: The Madras High Court quashed several criminal defamation proceedings moved by the state government against media houses, saying that the state cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy. 

More on news: 

  • The Hindu, Nakheeran and Times of India were among the media houses who had petitioned the court. 
  • The news reports that faced criminal defamation in the first three years of late J Jayalalithaa’s regime between 2011 and 2016 pleaded their right to free speech was violated by such accusations.

Court’s Judgement:

  • The role of any newspaper is only to disseminate the news that is happening around. The state can’t treat it as defamation even if there are some inaccuracies in the report. 
    • Criminal defamation is much more than that i.e the charge must be made recklessly with malice (ill will/hatred).
  • If the state becomes an impulsive prosecutor in criminal defamation matters that too in an era of social media where there are scores of abusive contents made against public figures, then it will get clogged with innumerable matters.
    • Further these are sometimes vindictive in nature only to settle scores with opposition political parties.
  • The court reiterated that a state will have to show utmost restraint and maturity in filing criminal defamation cases
  • Criticising the tendency of governments to use criminal defamation as a weapon against the media, the court termed it to be a menace which must be nipped in the bud.  
  • A public servant or a constitutional functionary must be able to face criticism and the state cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy.

Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression:

  • Freedom of Speech and Expression implies that every citizen has the right to express his views, opinions, beliefs and convictions freely by word of mouth, writing, printing, picturing or in any other manner. 
  • Article 19 guarantees to all citizens the six rights. These are:

  • The State can impose reasonable restrictions on the enjoyment of these six rights only on the grounds mentioned in Article 19 itself and not on any other grounds.
  • The State can impose reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the freedom of speech and expression on the grounds of 
    • sovereignty and integrity of India 
    • security of the state 
    • friendly relations with foreign states 
    • public order 
    • decency or morality 
    • contempt of court
    • defamation, and incitement to an offence.

Defamation as a ground to curtail Freedom of Speech:

  • Section 499 in The Indian Penal Code - In simple words, Defamation is the oral or written communication of a false statement about another that unjustly harms their reputation and usually constitutes a tort or crime.
  • Exceptions mentioned under Section 499
    • Imputation of truth which public good requires to be made or published.
    • Opinion on Public conduct of public servants.
    • Opinion on Conduct of any person touching any public question
    • Publication of reports of proceedings of Courts.
    • Caution intended for the good of person to whom conveyed or for public good etc.
  • Section 500 of IPC allows for punishment or fine or both to a person who defames another, thereby making it both a civil and criminal offence. 

Arguments against Criminal Defamation

Arguments in Favour of Criminal Defamation

Against the spirit of Article 19 as even truth is not a defence, it must be supported with public good.

Proponents say Article 19(2) nowhere mentions protection from criminal liability if restrictions on right are violated by individual

Section 499 allows for imprisonment for statements made even against the dead, which some consider to be excessive. 

Sections 499/500 have four explanations and 10 exceptions which help in tackling frivolous complaints

Many developed countries including the U.K has now restricted it to a civil liability.

Mere misuse or abuse of law, actual or potential, can never be a reason to render a provision unconstitutional. 

The conviction rates is case of murder, dowry etc.. cases is also not very high

A criminal suit can be filed even for political speech which might be used to settle political scores

Citizens due to their economic vulnerabilities are sometimes unlikely to have enough liquidity to pay damages for civil defamation.

It unnecessarily overburdens the courts

 

It is not expressly clarifies that why civil remedies are not enough to curb defamation

 

Conclusion:

  • The Supreme Court in the case of Subramaniam Swamy versus the Union of India, 2016 upheld the constitutional validity of criminal defamation .
  • Court said Right to free speech is not absolute. It does not mean freedom to hurt another's reputation which is protected under Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • Although Criminal Defamation is still valid but the courts need to ensure that their usage doesn’t impede the freedom under Article 19.

Source:

https://indianexpress.com/article/india/state-cant-use-criminal-defamation-cases-to-throttle-democracy-madras-hc-6421723/