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Defamation action on true reporting unhealthy for democratic setup: Bombay HC

Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court recently set aside criminal proceedings for defamation against the chairman and editor-in-chief of a media group

The court on June 20 passed a judgment in a criminal application by Vijay Darda, chairman of Lokmat Group, and its editor-in-chief Rajendra Darda challenging the January 2018 order of a magistrate court in Yavatmal district that initiated defamation proceedings against the applicants on a complaint by one Ravindra Ghisulal Gupta. (File)

The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, while recently setting aside criminal proceedings for defamation against the chairman and editor-in-chief of Lokmat Media group, held that “fair reporting of the information such as FIR, which is brought in public domain through news item containing a statement of facts may not attract action of defamation”.

It held, “The action of defamation about true and faithful reporting is unhealthy for a democratic setup”.

Observing this, the high court quashed a complaint of defamation for publishing a news article regarding an FIR filed against the complainant and his family members about an alleged brawl over property. It observed that the registration of the crime was correctly reported and “freedom of making a true report regarding affairs which are in public domain is a right, which flows from right to freedom of speech”.

The court held that “responsibility of the editor of the newspaper is to publish true facts and nothing else” and the publisher or editor is not expected to probe the matter and ascertain the truthfulness of FIR before publishing a news item.

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A single-judge bench of Justice Vinay G Joshi observed, “It is common knowledge that in daily newspapers, at least some space is devoted to the news about the registration of crimes, filing of cases in courts, the progress of the investigation, arrest of persons, etc. It constitutes news events which the public has the right to know.”

The judge went on to note, “Certainly, the publishers are to report the true happenings in their newspapers. I may reiterate that there is no dispute that the fact of registration of crime was correctly reported. Filing complaints about defamation on such news items are nothing but an attempt to shut up and stifle the reporters /informants and to force them to withdraw the report filed against the persons who are allegedly defamed.”

The court on June 20 passed a judgment in a criminal application by Vijay Darda, chairman of Lokmat Group, and its editor-in-chief Rajendra Darda challenging the January 2018 order of a magistrate court in Yavatmal district that initiated defamation proceedings against the applicants on a complaint by one Ravindra Ghisulal Gupta.

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Gupta said that the applicants, on May 20, 2016 published a false and frivolous news report in their Marathi newspaper in connivance with the co-accused, with the sole intention of humiliating him, which has lowered his image in society. He added the news report was published without verifying the truthfulness of the FIR lodged against him and his family.

Advocate Nitin Lambat for the complainant said that his client was not present at the spot when the alleged incident took place and his name was later excluded from the chargesheet.

However, advocate Firdos Mirza for the applicants said that his clients are not editors of the newspaper as per the declaration made in newspaper imprint under provision of Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867 and therefore not vicariously liable for defamation proceedings, which the court accepted. Mirza added that mere publication of registration of FIR would not amount to defamation as there was no intention to harm the reputation of the person.

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The bench observed that if the editor/publisher’s act was held a libel, “then no reporting of news could be made till the final outcome of the investigation or the final orders of the last court. It would deprive the rights of the public to know the happenings”.

Allowing application, it observed, “Undoubtedly, the press has great power in impressing the minds of the people…No doubt, publication of news on rumour or on hearsay information having no iota of truth is fatal to a journalist. Herein, it is not the case that FIR was not at all registered or the distorted news item was published.”

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First published on: 25-06-2022 at 05:30:50 pm
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