The Delhi High Court Friday dismissed a plea filed by fugitive diamond merchant Mehul Choksi, one of the key accused in the alleged Rs 13500-crore Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud case, seeking a preview of Netflix documentary ‘Bad Boy Billionaires-India’.
The docuseries, which will be released worldwide on September 2, features among others Choksi’s nephew Nirav Modi, who is also an accused in the alleged fraud. Choski sought a preview of the show stating that he has the right to a fair and free trial and that he had apprehensions that the show could cause prejudice to the trial.
A look at Choksi’s petition and other similar petitions or cases by the accused against publication of books or release of films.
What did Mehul Choksi’s petition seek?
Choksi, the promoter of Gitanjali Gems Ltd, who has acquired the citizenship of Antigua and Barbuda, submitted to the court that he had seen a trailer of the Netflix show and had received calls from various persons across the world to check if he was a part of it.
Choksi claimed he feared that his name may have been used in connection with his nephew Modi, who is featured in the show. He sought a pre-screening to allay these apprehensions and that appropriate reliefs — deletions or disclaimers — be available to him. The counsel for Netflix had told the court that Choksi was in the show only for two minutes, and it was not pertaining to the trial. The platform said that while it was ready to show the series to the court, a pre-screening could not be held for Choksi. The court, however, dismissed the writ petition stating that it was not maintainable since it was against a private entity and an appropriate civil suit could be filed.
On what grounds is relief usually sought against an upcoming book or film?
The basis of seeking relief in such cases is the ground that the publication of a book or a release of a film/documentary/show can cause prejudice to a pending trial. Choksi relied on Article 21 of the Constitution that guarantees equality before law, the presumption of innocence before being found guilty, and a fair and free trial.
Similar relief has been sought in other cases in the past as well. Relief is usually sought on grounds including Article 21 and Article 19, which, while guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression, imposes reasonable restrictions on grounds of contempt of court and defamation. Usually accused persons also refer to the damage that can be caused to their reputation.
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Mumbai serial blasts and film ‘Black Friday’
An accused in the 1993 Bombay serial blasts case, Mushtaq Moosa Tarani, had approached the Bombay High Court in 2005 seeking a stay on the release of Black Friday, a film based on the book by journalist S Hussain Zaidi. Initially based on an application filed before the trial court by 31 undertrial prisoners in the case, the words ‘True Story’ was removed from the title of the film.
Tarani submitted to the high court that he feared the film will vitiate a fair trial and have a “damaging effect on the impartiality of the administration of justice” and would amount to contempt of court. The HC restrained the film from being released till the final judgment in the case is pronounced. It said the loss to the petitioner’s dignity and reputation would be irreparable as the viewers may form an opinion about his guilt. It also said that the release of the film will have a “prejudicial effect” on the administration of justice and the image of the accused. The filmmakers had approached the Supreme Court against this order but the film was allowed to be released only after the judgment in the case in 2006.
Abu Salem and book ‘My Name is Abu Salem’
Gangster Abu Salem, who was facing trial for the murder of Mumbai-based builder Pradeep Jain, had also sought a similar relief deferring the release of a book titled, My Name is Abu Salem, as the trial in the case was ongoing in 2014. The special trial court had restrained the sale of the book directing it to be withdrawn from stores and e-portals after observing that the consent of the accused was not taken and that it may cause him prejudice. The Bombay High Court, however, had set aside the order stating that the trial court did not have powers to do so.
In another case before the Delhi High Court in 2019, the accused persons in the Batla House encounter case in Delhi sought that a film titled Batla House be postponed till the pending trials conclude. The court had ordered for a pre-screening of the film witnessed by counsel of both sides. Both parties agreed to resolve issues in the film, including deleting certain scenes showing the accused making explosive devices, their confessions and an actual photograph of a Delhi Police personnel. After this, the film was allowed to be released last year.