THERE is no point in merely singing paeans to freedom of the press if one cannot go to its rescue when that right is faced with a serious threat. The Court can never desert its duty when it comes to the protection of fundamental rights. Those observations will apply to the entire higher judiciary, said the Madras High Court on Wednesday, while quashing criminal defamation proceedings against the Grievances Redressal Officer and The Editor of the Economic Times and as well journalist, Sandhya Ravishankar and her husband V Prem Ravishankar.
Justice G R Swaminathan was hearing a plea seeking quashing of the defamation proceedings filed by V V Minerals against a publication in the February 1-7, 2015 issue of Economic Times Magazine. It was titled “Scam on the Shores”. It alleged that illegal beach sand mining of atomic minerals like monazite was taking place along the southern coastline of Tamil Nadu. The scandal was said to be of monumental proportions.
The trial court had issued summons to the accused.
Two apparent errors
The High Court noted that the petitioner no.1 and 2 (The Grievance Redressal Officer and The Editor) were shown accused no. 1 and 2 in the defamation complaint not by names but only by designations. To this, Justice Swaminathan observed:
“It is trite to say that an accused in a criminal case can be either an individual or a corporate entity. The accused if an individual will have to be named in person with appropriate description. If the accused is not named in person and is merely referred to by designation, the court ought to return the complaint as defective. In this case, the trial magistrate appears to have mechanically taken cognizance of the offences even without noting that the A1 and A2 have not been named in person at all”.
He added, “that apart, there is absolutely no allegation whatsoever against the first petitioner. Merely because he has not redressed the grievance projected by the complainant, he cannot be accused of having committed the offence of defamation. Therefore, I have no hesitation to come to the conclusion that the impugned proceedings deserve to be quashed as regards the petitioners 1 and 2”.
Wife-an independent personality
The fourth petitioner who is also the husband of freelancer journalist Sandhya Ravishankar had been roped in on the sole ground that he had abetted the commission of the offence. According to the complainant, the third petitioner Sandhya Ravishankar wrote the offending article at the instigation of her husband, the fourth petitioner.
Striking the name of the petitioner- V Prem Ravishankar, from the array of the accused before the Trial Court, Justice Swaminathan observed:
“The third petitioner is an independent freelance journalist. If I accept the contention of the complainant’s counsel, that would undermine the agency of the woman concerned. This concept of agency has considerable philosophical import and was evolved by the feminists during the last century”.
“The complainant wants me to assume that the third petitioner lacks personal autonomy. The third petitioner definitely has the capacity to act independently and make her own free choice. I cannot assume that the third petitioner was a pawn or tool at the hands of her husband. Her innate dignity can be upheld only by deleting the fourth petitioner from the array of accused”, held Justice Swaminathan.
Duty of the High Court in safeguarding the freedom of the press
Justice G.R. Swaminathan while examining the role of the constitutional court in protecting the freedom of the press made an important observation. He said:
“When freedom of press, which is a fundamental right, is at stake, higher judiciary is obliged to exercise not only its inherent power but also exert itself a bit. An unused power is useless tinsel. There is no point in merely saying that press is the foundation of democracy”
“Since the constitutional courts have been tasked with a duty to be proactive when it comes to protection of fundamental rights, I am obliged to examine the defence of the petitioners. The objection by the respondent that the petitioners’ contentions revolve around facts cannot be a fig leaf for throwing out the petition”, said Justice Swaminathan.
“If a summary examination of the materials produced by the accused can bring their case within one of the Exceptions, I can give relief to the petitioners here itself instead of making them undergo the ordeal of trial. Such an activist role will have to be played by the higher judiciary because it is a matter of record that criminal defamation proceedings have become a tool of intimidation and before corporate bodies and powerful politicians whose pockets are tunnel deep and whose hands are long even media houses having good resources have capitulated”, Justice Swaminathan added.
Holding that the offending publication fell within Exception No.3 to Section 499 IPC, the HC proceed to quash the entire defamation proceedings against all the four petitioners.