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Pratham Darad

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Freedom of Media

One of the paradoxes is that Freedom of the Media to which our Founding Fathers were greatly attached finds no mention in Part III of our Constitution which guarantees certain fundamental rights. There is no specific guarantee of Freedom of the Media as in the Constitutions of other countries.

In the course of the Constituent Assembly debates, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar expressed the same view, and thought that “no special mention is necessary of the Freedom of the Media at all”. This view has been vindicated by the Supreme Court of India. In a series of decisions from 1950 onwards the Supreme Court has ruled that Freedom of the Media is implicit in the guarantee of freedom of speech and expression in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Thus Freedom of the Media by judicial interpretation has been accorded the constitutional status of a fundamental right. However there is a strong body of opinion which favours specific mention of Freedom of the Media as a fundamental right.

The fundamental right guaranteed is not merely the individual right of the proprietor of the newspaper, or the editor or the journalist. It includes within its capacious content the collective right of the community, the right of citizens to read and to be informed, to impart and receive information. In substance, it is right of the people to know.

When we are speaking about the Freedom of the Media it must be remembered that freedom of expression and Freedom of the Media are not absolute and unlimited. Under our constitutional scheme Freedom of the Media also can be restricted provided three distinct and independent prerequisites are satisfied. The restriction imposed must have the authority of law to support it. The law must fall squarely within one or more heads of restrictions specified in Article 19(2), namely,

a)      Security of the State

b)      Sovereignty and integrity of India

c)      Friendly relations with foreign States

d)       Public order

e)      Decency or morality

f)       Contempt of court

g)      Defamation

h)      Incitement to an offence.

 

The restriction must be reasonable.

One of the permissible heads of restrictions is defamation. In our country there can be criminal prosecution for defamation with imprisonment up to two years and fine. There is also the civil remedy for damages for defamation. The possibility of criminal prosecution and imposition of heavy damages in civil suits against the press can have a chilling effect which can at times be freezing. Thus the potentiality of clash between Freedom of the Media and laws or measures protecting reputation which is the purpose of the law of defamation is inevitable. This is a real problem.

The constitutional guarantee of free speech and Freedom of the Press does not confer a fundamental right to defame persons and harm their reputations by false and baseless allegations and by innuendoes and insinuations. The Press enjoys no talismanic immunity from legal proceedings when it has indulged in malicious falsehoods. A person’s right to good name and honor is also a basic human right.

Defamation

Salmond define the wrong of defamation as publication of a defamatory statement about a person without any lawful justification. Blackburn and George define tort of defamation as publication of a statement which brings down reputation of a person before the right thinking members of the society generally. The word “to bring down reputation of a person before the right thinking members of the society generally” is taken from the test suggested by Lord Atkin.

The difference between libel and slander

As mentioned above, libel is tends to be in permanent form whereas slander is spoken words. Legislation has made clear that TV broadcasts or theatre plays are to be treated as libel. For other methods of communication it is necessary to consult the common law which applies a test of permanence or transience of the statement.

In Monson vTussauds, the court had to decide whether a wax statue was capable of being libel. The court hold that it was, the court said that anything which has a permanent of lasting form can be libel including an effigy or chalk marks on a wall. Lopes, J. said that libel need not be always written and can be of any other permanent form.

Another important distinction is that libel is actionable per se, which means without any proof of damage. Whereas slander, like most areas of law, requires proof of some injury before a lawsuit can be brought.

 

What kind of injury can be shown?

Mere damage to reputation is insufficient, so is the loss of friends (though losing out on the hospitality of friends may be sufficient). Something like loss of a job or reduced business profits would be sufficient.

As an aside, the requirement of damage has often been criticized. It is not clear why libel should be more easily actionable. It is true that words in permanent form, such as book, have more potential to reach large numbers of people than simply spoken words, but this may not necessarily be the case where someone is making a speech to large groups of people.

There are, however, some types of slander actionable per se:

• Imputation of criminal conduct – Where a Defendant accuses the Claimant of criminal conduct which is punishable by imprisonment; there is no need for proof of damage. However, words which express suspicion will not be actionable per se.

• Imputation of a contagious disease – This rule is largely outdated but would have had significance during the periods where serious diseases were rampant. Clearly an imputation that someone has a disease can lead to job loss or social exclusion. This exception would be applicable today for something like HIV/AIDS.

• Imputation of unchastity – This applies to the imputation of adultery or unchastity to a woman or girl or even homosexual is actionable per se. The imputation of unchastity was introduced throughout England by Slander of Women Act 1891.  There is no version for men.

• Imputation in unfitness to run a business – It used to be the case that the exception only applied to comments directed at specific professional tasks, thus accusing the boss of an affair with the caretaker would not be under this exception. It would have been if they were accused of an affair with an employee as that affects how they do their job. Now, however, the exception is much broader and applies to the whole job generally.

Requirements to Take Defamation Action

1.      The Statement must be Defamatory

The first requirement for a defamation action is that the statement is defamatory. A defamatory comment is one that injures a person’s reputation. The basic test is from Partimerv. Coupland“[Was the statement] calculated to injure the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule.”

It does not matter if the statement is not believed in fact by the people they are published to, but it does matter if no reasonable person would believe them, in which case they are not actionable. The statement must be assessed in its context and regard must be had to the characteristics of the Claimant. In Monson v. Tussuads, a wax statue of the Claimant had been placed in the same room as some murders next to the Chamber of Horrors. The Claimant had been tried for murder but a verdict of ‘not proven’ was entered and he was successful in his claim.

Defamation must go beyond mere insults and strike at the claimant’s reputation. Insults and jokes may hurt people and even be the cause of a civil action in employment law i.e. between employees, but discourtesy and insults are not on the same level as defamation. Defamation is one of the only areas of civil law to retain a jury, and it would be for the jury to decide whether the words were defamatory.

2.      The Statement Must Refer to the Claimant

The Claimant doesn’t have to be identified by name but as long as a reasonable inference can be made this criterion is satisfied.

However, it is important to remember that the question is not who the publisher intended to hit, but who they actually hit. Thus in Hulton v Jones, Artemus Jones was a barrister who brought an action against the defendants in respect of a newspaper article which allegedly referred to him. The article referred to a man called Artemus Jones who worked as a warden and alleged that he had behaved immorally during a motor festival. The Claimant had contributed pieces to the newspaper before. The Defendants argued that they had never intended the ‘real’ Artemus Jones but instead had created a fictional character and given it a fancy name. The Defendants lost at trial, in the Court of Appeal and in the House of Lords. This case has been called ‘the most famous case in the law of libel’ and has been heavily criticized. Arguably it is quite unfair to the newspaper. At the same time, however, it is not open to anyone with the same name to sue. Rather the jury must reasonably believe that the person in the statement is the Claimant. It will be hard to convince them when the Claimant has no connection at all with any of the facts.

However, in Morgan v.Odhams Press, the court said that ordinary members of the public do not read a newspaper article surgically, as a lawyer would, but simply skim over it. Thus if a person would think the article was referring to the Claimant after a brief skim then that will be sufficient, even if upon a close reading it is clear that it did not refer to the Claimant. However, what often happen in cases where the evidence against the Defendant isn’t strong is that the jury will find the Defendant liable but only give nominal damages.

In cases where there the article accidentally refers to an unintended person, the publisher can make an offer of amends. This is situations where the Defendant neither knew nor had reason to suspect that the statement referred to the claimant or was likely to be understood as referring to the claimant. The offer of amends requires the Defendant to publish an apology and offer to pay compensation.

3.      The Statement must be published

In defamation, ‘publish’ does not have its ordinary definition meaning the printing of words in a book or leaflet. Publishing, here, means communicating the defamatory statement to a third party, whether that is in a conversation or the people at home who are watching a television show in which a defamatory comment is made.

A statement can be published in many ways including by omission, such as where you have a duty to clear graffiti from the walls. The one exception is that communication to the Defendant’s spouse is not publication but communication to the Claimant’s spouse may be.

In Theaker v. Richardson, a husband opened a letter which defamed his wife. It was held that the defamation had been published to the husband as it natural and probable that the husband would open it.

A particular problem for the courts is not the first communication by the Defendant himself but any subsequent communication. Every repetition of a defamatory statement gives rise to a new cause of action against the Defendant provided it was foreseeable the document would be passed on.

In Slipper v BBC, the Claimant was a retired police officer was the subject of a film about trying to capture some men who had committed the Great Train Robbery. The Claimant alleged that the film showed him as a complete idiot. The film had been shown to some journalists before its release to the public and those journalists had published reviews contained the defamatory sting of the film i.e. that he was an incompetent police officer. The Claimant sued not only for the release to the public but the repetitions in the journalists’ reviews. The defendants argued that the repetitions are only actionable where the defendant has authorized them. The court rejected this argument and said that the Defendant can be liable for any re-publication of the defamatory material as long as it was reasonably foreseeable.

The rule of re-publications is stricter in respect of publication on the internet. Every time an internet user accesses an article on a website there is a fresh publication. In Loutchanksyv. Times Newspapers, the defendant argued that the court should adopt a single publication rule as in some US states where an article put online is published once regarding of many times it is accessed. The court rejected this though accepted that the rule may be disproportionate and was somewhat at odds with the 12 limitation period for defamation.

Times Global Broadcasting Co. Ltd. and anr.v. ParshuramBabaramSawant2011(113)BomLR3801

 

The progress of the case, Times Global Broadcasting Co. Ltd. and anr.v.ParshuramBabaramSawantwas watched closely by all news media, politicians, celebrities and other targets of alleged defamation. The verdict of this case is expected to change the face of media reporting forever and also verdicts in pending defamation cases. The verdict of this case was applauded as well as criticized by different sections of judiciary and media. Some argued that this will make media and press more responsible in their reporting while other said that this will discourage media reporting as verdict was too harsh on the defendant. The verdict of this case is also expected to encourage more number of people to file defamation case for damages. Also, some critics of this case expressed their concern because they felt that the verdict was partial because the plaintiff belongs to the legal fraternity and wondered if same damage would have been awarded if the plaintiff would have belonged to some other section of the society.

Facts of the case:

  • The plaintiff has stated that, he is the former judge of Supreme Court, former chairman of the Press Council of India, the former president of the World Association of Press Councils.
  • The defendant no. 1 is a duly incorporated company in the business of news reporting and broadcasting. It belongs to well known “Times Group”. It runs a news channel by the name “Times Now”.
  • The defendant no. 2 is the employee of defendant no. 1 and is the Editor in chief of the said News Channel and as such responsible for all its publication.
  • On 10.9.2008, while the News relating to Provident Fund scam was being telecast by the said channel, a photograph of the plaintiff was flashed as that of Justice P.K. Samantha (an accused in the said scam).
  • The said flashing of photograph created false impression amongst all the viewers in India and abroad that plaintiff was involved in PF Scam which is per se highly defamatory.
  • The said channel stopped publishing the photograph of the plaintiff when the mistake was brought to their notice.

Proceedings before the trial court:

  • The plaintiff filed a suit against the defendant stating that the defendant took belated action which cannot undo the wrong committed.

Questions before the trial court

  • Was the telecast defamatory per se of the plaintiff?
  • Whether the plaintiff is entitled for the damages?

Arguments of the respondent:

  • The defendants argued that the photograph of the plaintiff was only flashed only once for a short duration. It was without malice and without any intention.
  • The defendants have corrected the mistake by withdrawing it from all subsequent news on the channel. Therefore, the act of the defendants was quick and therefore denied carrying any defamation.
  • The defendants have submitted that they have not received any queries from the public.
  • The claim with regard to compensation is baseless and therefore is liable to be dismissed.

Decision of the trial court

  • The court gave decision in the favour of the plaintiff.
  • The court held that:
  • In the light of broadcasting of photo of the plaintiff, according to him, the act of the plaintiff is nothing but a tort for which the plaintiff defamed in the society.
  • The plaintiff is entitled to damage for Rs.100 Crores.

Question before the high court

  • Whether the trial court is correct in its finding?
  • Whether the damages awarded to the plaintiff viable or not?

Decision of the high court

  • The high court gave decision in the favour of the plaintiff.
  • The court asked the defendant to deposit the damage amount to the bank as directed by the court.

 

 


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