Calling “free speech” the “lifeblood of democracy”, the Delhi High Court Friday set aside its single-judge order restraining web portal Cobrapost from making public a documentary on various media houses that were allegedly involved in malpractices like paid news, mass polarisation and accepting black money.
Holding that “unless it is demonstrated at the threshold that the offending content is malicious or palpably false, an injunction and that too an ex-parte one, without recording any reasons should not be given”, a bench of Justices S Ravindra Bhat and A K Chawla remitted the matter back to the single judge and asked it to hear afresh the question of granting interim relief on the petition of Dainik Bhaskar Corporation (DB) Ltd.
The High Court Friday directed the parties to remain present before the single judge on October 3. Following the ruling, Kotla Harshavardhan, the advocate for Cobrapost, said that “the web portal released the sting operation in view of the judgment in our favour”.
“Undoubtedly, the new age media, especially the electronic media and internet posts greater challenges. That per se ought not to dilute valuable right of free speech which, if one may say so, is the lifeblood of democracy,” the High Court said.
The Court further said that the “salutary and established principle in issues that concern free speech is that public figures and public institutions have to fulfil a very high threshold to seek injunctive relief in respect of alleged libel or defamation”.
DB Corporation had sought to restrain permanently the Forum for Media and Literature – a non-profit organisation engaged in investigative journalism, which publishes its investigations on Cobrapost.com- from making public its “Operation 136: Part II”.
The Cobrapost documentary allegedly shows senior officials of media organisations talking to an undercover reporter about a proposal to promote “Hindutva” politics and content criticising leaders of Opposition parties including the Congress, BSP, SP and the JD(S) for money.
The single judge in an interim order on May 24 had restrained Cobrapost from making public its documentary on DB Corporation’s plea.
Challenging the single-judge order, Cobrapost and its journalist had said it was a matter of freedom of speech and that the single judge had granted an ex-parte injunction and stayed the documentary mechanically.
The DB group has denied the allegations and argued that the proposed revelations were based on a blatant, deceptive operation to defame them.
It had further claimed that the same was not in public interest, besides causing irreparable loss and injury to their goodwill and reputation which cannot be measured in terms of money, and also raises certain moral and ethical questions.
The Division Bench, however, observed “the members of the public and citizens of this country expect news and fair comment as to whether a public institution – including a media house or journal (which cannot claim any exemption from being public institutions as they are the medium through which information is disseminated, and are one of the pillars of democracy) functions properly.”
“In case there are allegations which result in controversies as to the reliability of the news which one or the other disseminates to the public, that too is a matter of public debate,” the Court said.
The bench further said that “democracy presupposes robustness in debates, which often turns the spotlight on public figures and public institutions – like media houses, journals and editors. If courts are to routinely stifle debate, what cannot be done by law by the state can be achieved indirectly without satisfying exacting Constitutional standards that permit infractions on the valuable right to freedom of speech”.