Quashing a defamation complaint filed by Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Naeem Akhtar against Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami and journalist Aditya Raj Kaul, among others, the Jammu and Kashmir high court on Wednesday said that reporting allegations about the official duties of a public figure cannot be considered defamatory.
The court made the important observation that the media has a “bounden duty to bring to the notice of the viewers and readers the day-to-day events, particularly those relating to public figures and public servants concerning their actions/omissions affecting the public at large”.
According to Bar and bench the single-judge bench of Justice Sanjay Dhar quashed the defamation proceedings pending before the court of chief judicial magistrate, Srinagar.
The complaint against Goswami and Kaul, who was then an anchor for Republic TV, was filed in July 2018 under sections 499 (defamation) and 500 (punishment for defamation) of the Ranbir Penal Code before the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Srinagar.
Akhtar said that on July 4, 2018, Republic TV had broadcast a “defamatory and malicious news segment”. At the time, Akhtar was an MLA and had held the portfolio of works minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government before its collapse in June 2018. In the programme, Kaul, the anchor, and others discussed the allegations made by Khalid Jahangir, a member of the BJP, in a letter dated June 21, 2018 to the governor.
Jahangir had levelled allegations of “corruption and favouritism” against a “close aide” of the former chief minister of the state [Mehbooba Mufti].
Akhtar’s complainant said that even though the letter did not mention any person by name, yet Arnab Goswami, while reporting the said letter, “deliberately and intentionally” mentioned his name in connection with the allegations levelled in the letter.
He also alleged that the anchors of the programme, including Kaul, “repeatedly and intentionally, kept on mentioning Akhtar’s name in connection with the allegations made in the letter”.
The judge noted that after having “carefully watched” the news programme, which was submitted to the court, “I do not find any imputation or any allegation having emanated from the presenters of the news programme. The anchors and presenters only repeatedly referred to the letter of Shri Khalid Jahangir and read out contents thereof.”
The judge said that instead, “[I]t appears that the news anchors were at pains to emphasize the fact that their source of information is the letter in question and they go on repeatedly telling the viewers about the charges/allegations with each caption carrying question mark(?) at its end, thereby conveying to the viewers that the allegations/charges contained in the letter are yet to be established”.
By doing so, the channel took “due care that is expected of a responsible news channel”. In this context, it cannot be said that the accused intended to harm the reputation of the complainant, Justice Dhar said.
According to the order, the court also made some important functions to be performed by the media. Describing the media as the fourth pillar of democracy, Justice Dhar said it has a “bounden duty to bring to the notice of the viewers and readers the day-to-day events, particularly those relating to public figures and public servants concerning their actions/omissions affecting the public at large”.
The judge said that it is evident from Jahangir’s letter, though it does not mention the works minister or Akhtar, who the ‘close aide’ it refers to is.
“The accused/anchors have only stated the obvious. Anyone who possesses even elementary knowledge of who is who of Jammu and Kashmir, can name the minister who was holding [the] portfolio of works during the period referred to in the letter of Shri Khalid Jahangir. So, merely because accused/anchors
mentioned the name of the respondent in the programme may not be enough to impute mens rea [criminal intent] to the petitioners that they wanted to harm the reputation of the respondent,” the judge said.
The next question that needs to be answered, the court said, is whether reporting of allegations levelled by a senior office-bearer of a public sector corporation against a minister, touching the public duties of the said minister, would amount to defamation. “The answer to this question has to be in [the] negative. This is so because categorising as defamation, the publication of allegations/charges concerning public duties of [a] public figure recorded in a letter which is in [the] public domain would be an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of the press guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution,” Justice Dhar said.
According to Bar and Bench, the court said the magistrate, while issuing process against the petitioners, did not apply his mind to the whole material before him. In complaints alleging the commission of defamation, the responsibility of a magistrate to examine the material on record is of a higher degree, the order says.
Hence, the order issuing process against the petitioners is not sustainable in law, the court said, quashing the proceedings.
Justice Dhar’s order began with two quotes that offer some advice to people holding public offices. They are: