Observing that sting operations are an “important part” of society, the Delhi High Court has said putting the press under the fear of being sued would “chill public debate and enquiry” as it will not be able to express freely on public issues.
“Though the press and the media are not exempt or always protected from the general law relating to defamation but it is to be kept in mind that defamation law is not to be used to gag, silence, suppress and subjugate press and the media,” Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw said.
The judge observed, “It cannot be forgotten that the law of defamation has the potential to be an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution of India and the Courts owe a duty to ensure that the law of defamation is not so exploited.”
It also referred to the Supreme Court findings in the Rafale fighter jet deal matter, which held that “the right to information prevails even over the Official Secrets and/or that the Official Secrets Act has to be read harmoniously with the right to information”.
The court’s observations and judgment came on May 2 in a defamation suit filed by Indian Potash Ltd, a company under the administrative control of Department of Fertilizers, Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, with 90% of its equity held by government-funded state cooperative ventures and public sector companies.
The company had sought Rs 11 crore in damages from the owner and editor of a news channel after a sting operation aired on the channel on April 27-28, 2007 showed that the company was allegedly selling adulterated/synthetic milk in western Uttar Pradesh.
The court, however, held that “no case of defamation” is made out against the channel and the company was not entitled to recover any amount as damages.
It observed, “…the balancing, which the courts are required to do between the Fundamental Rights of Freedom of Speech and Expression particularly of the press/ media, and of reputation, has to be with the objective of ensuring that there is no chilling effect. If a person or press or media were put under a fear of being sued, they will not express himself/themselves freely on public issues and this would chill public debate and enquiry. It is not for the government to sue for defamation of its employees.”