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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Court ruling bolsters freedom of the press

The Madras High Court, on July 20, 2009, reaffirmed the principle that public officials cannot stop the media from reporting or commenting on their performance on grounds that such writings were defamatory.

Justice K Chandru gave the ruling in a case brought by Union Communications Minister A Raja against the Tamil magazine Junior Vikatan which had been running a series of articles on the minister’s activities centering on alleged irregularities in the allotment of a radio frequency spectrum to mobile phone operators, and also on his wife’s business interests.

The minister had sought an interim order barring the magazine from publishing “defamatory news items”.

The high court initially restrained the magazine from carrying further articles on the subject. The ban lasted three months until it was overturned by Justice Chandru when it was sought to be extended.

In his ruling, Justice Chandru rejected the minister’s application and said there was no law available to pass a prior restraint order against the press. He also imposed a case cost of Rs 10,000 payable to the magazine.

The case involves the fundamental principle of freedom of expression. In the first instance, the court was expected to restrain the magazine from publishing so-called defamatory material before the material was published rather than penalising it after the material was proved to be judged defamatory, as is usually the custom.

Second, when it comes to scrutiny of public officials, as in this case, the Supreme Court has ruled that even if statements about public officials are untrue, damages cannot be claimed unless it is established that the statements were made with “reckless disregard for the truth”.

The issue of regulating or stifling the press is also playing out in both houses of Parliament. Members of Parliament belonging to different political parties on both the left and right have urged the government to crack down on what they call “increasing obscenity and vulgarity in TV programmes being shown on different channels against the cultural ethos of the country”.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told the upper house, or Rajya Sabha, on July 27, 2009, that the government was working towards establishing a Broadcasting Regulatory Authority of India by way of bringing a Broadcasting Bill before Parliament.

She said she hoped the government would be able to put a regulatory mechanism in place and said the government wanted to ensure that community standards for broadcasting were established.

She added however that the issue was a “sensitive subject” taking into account “freedom of expression” on the one hand and the “concerns of civil society” on the other. But, she said, the setting up of a “regulatory body is very necessary”.

Soni said a “credible self-regulatory independent” mechanism could comprise members of the media, eminent people from civil society and government officials.


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