The Madras High Court on Thursday 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.
Hearing a batch of 25 petitions filed by media houses seeking to quash proceedings in criminal defamation cases filed between 2011 and 2013, Justice Abdul Quddhose said, “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, the sessions court will get clogged with innumerable matters which 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. It said that criminal defamation procedures can be invoked only in cases where there is foolproof material and when launching of prosecution under Section 199(2) CrPC is inevitable. Criticising the tendency of governments to use criminal defamation as a weapon against media, the court said, “This menace will have to be curbed and nipped in the bud.”
“The criminal defamation law is meant for a laudable object in real cases of necessity and cannot be misused by using the state as a tool to settle scores of a public servant/constitutional functionary over his or her adversary. A public servant or a constitutional functionary must be able to face criticism,” said the court. “The state cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy.”
The Hindu, Nakheeran, Times of India, Dinamalar, Tamil Murasu, Murasoli and Dinakaran 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 include: a report about an attack on a Tamil magazine by AIADMK activists, publishing a statement issued by the then Opposition leader Vijayakanth accusing the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa of “running a government through statements”, an interview with a woman who claimed to be the daughter of Jayalalithaa, and calling Jayalalithaa a “beef eating Brahmin”, which the magazine had claimed was referring to words of her own mentor M G Ramachandran in her early political career.
Justice Quddhose reminded that the prosecution must also consider themselves as agents of justice. “There should not be on the part of the public prosecutor a blind eagerness for, or grasping at a conviction. Prosecution does not mean persecution,” he said.
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