Press Has Right To Publish News Item With Its Necessary Comments & Views : Kerala HC Quashes Defamation Case Against Manorama Editors

            In a fresh, fine and favourable judgment, the Kerala High Court just recently on November 13, 2020 in Philip Mathew vs. State of Kerala [Crl. MC. No. 7758 of 2016] has quashed a defamation complaint registered against the Chief Editor, Managing Editor and Publisher of Malayala Manorama Daily. It is most gratifying, most refreshing and most rejuvenating to learn that Justice P Somarajan of the Kerala High Court has categorically, convincingly and cogently observed that the press has the right to publish a news item with its necessary comments and views. Such right cannot be defeated unless malafides writ large on its face and not concerning with a matter of public interest or public good. This cannot be denied or disputed!

Truth be told, it also made it clear that the contemptuous nature of news item, if it is connected with imputation of truth, which requires publication for the public good will not attract the  offence of defamation. Very rightly so! The complaint was against a news published in the daily about a Vigilance report against the complainant (R. Chandrasekaran) and three others.

To start with, the ball is set rolling in this latest, landmark and laudable judgment authored by Justice P Somarajan  by first and foremost observing in para 1 that, “The Managing Editor, the Chief Editor and the Printer and Publisher of a daily newspaper came up to quash the proceedings initiated on the allegation of offence under Section 500 IPC through a private complaint on which cognizance was taken by the Magistrate and process was issued under Section 204 Cr.P.C. Annexure A is the copy of news item published.”

While elaborating further, it is then pointed out in para 2 that, “Annexure A news item was published based on a report submitted by the Vigilance to set the criminal law in motion against the defacto complainant and three others after conducting a preliminary enquiry and recommended registration of crime against them. Going by Annexure A news item, it is clear that what is reported is the true version of report submitted by the Vigilance against the defacto complainant and three others. It is true that they were referred as accused persons in the news item, even before registration of crime in connection with the allegations.”

Truth be told, it is then most significantly disclosed in para 3 that, “What is reported is the true version of an enquiry report submitted by the Vigilance Department against the defacto complainant and three others. It is the duty of the fourth estate to publish all news materials, especially having public importance and it is their further duty to comment on the news material with its pros and cons so as to enlighten the society to remain vigil on the matters of public importance. It would squarely come under the first exception attached to Section 499 IPC, when it is done with bonafides for the public interest. The fourth estate is not expected to shy away from the matters governing public importance, but it is their solemn duty to serve the society with the news item with its pros and cons so as to make the society more functional and vigil. The fourth estate being one of the rostrums to address and comment on each and every matters governing public interest/public importance in a democratic society, the news item published with necessary comments, though sometimes contemptuous, may not itself amount to a defamation as defined under Section 499 IPC, unless the same is lacking in good faith and not concerning with a matter of public interest or public good. The first proviso to Section 499 IPC has got a wide canvass in a democratic system and right to publish a news item with its necessary comments and views though sometimes contemptuous, cannot be defeated unless malafides writ large on its face and not concerning with a matter of public interest or public good. The contemptuous nature of news item, if it is connected with imputation of truth, which requires publication for the public good will not attract the offence and there shall not be any misunderstanding with respect to the requirement to attract Section 499 IPC with the first exception therein. The news item published hence will not attract the offence of defamation as defined under Section 499 IPC. It was submitted that subsequently a crime was registered against the defacto complainant and three others and a refer report was submitted subsequently.”

Finally, it is then held in the lat para 4 that, “The private complaint submitted is really intended to defeat the solemn function vested with the fourth estate and it will tell upon what is behind it. It is an abuse of the process of court, liable to be quashed. Hence the private complaint and the further proceedings are hereby quashed. Crl.M.C. is allowed.”

In essence, the cornerstone of this really cogent, commendable and convincing judgment is contained clearly, credibly and convincingly in para 3 which must be read maximum times. It certainly minces no words to make it amply clear as to what is the duty of the fourth estate. It also makes it further clear that the press has right to publish news item with its necessary comments and views.

No wonder, the Kerala High Court takes the right step in quashing the defamation case against Manorama Editors. There can certainly be no denying or disputing it! Freedom of press is most important and indispensable and its importance merits no reiteration.

It goes without saying that for any democracy to function smoothly and effectively, there has to be free press which is just not possible if journalists have to keep fighting defamation case or some other case in the courts all the time! Even Supreme Court has acknowledged this and has always advocated more freedom for press and journalists to function independently just as we saw recently in case of Arnab Goswami who is the Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV and who was set free recently after 8 days from Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai after Supreme Court’s intervention by a Bench of Justice Dr DY Chandrachud and Justice Indira Banerjee! So Kerala High Court has certainly acted wisely to ensure press freedom and this definitely must be applauded and admired in no uncertain terms!

Sanjeev Sirohi

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