The Madras High Court has quashed criminal defamation proceedings initiated by the State government against the chairman, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and reporter of Rediff.com for carrying a news article on July 10, 2015 accusing the media of not reporting widely about the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's failing health.
Justice P. N. Prakash said the court was unable to persuade itself to the submissions of the Public Prosecutor, inasmuch as, an allegedly defamatory article should be read as a whole and not in bits and pieces. "A genuine assessment of the state of affairs of the administration at a given point of time cannot amount to defamation", said the bench.
It continued to express that the 'Right to free speech and expression' guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, is so sacrosanct, though, it can be restricted on the grounds set out in Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. "The press has a duty to keep the public informed about the happenings in the administration of the State. If this freedom is stifled, rumours and gossip will masquerade as truth", the court stated.
"The above article has been addressed to the Chennai press and a question has been posed to them as to why they are not properly reporting about the health of the Chief Minister. The fact that the Chief Minister was not well, was so obvious, when on May 23, 2015, twenty eight Ministers took oath in two batches at a stretch, which was unprecedented", noted the Single Bench of Justice P. N. Prakash.
The bench noted that the article does not refer to any particular ailment of the Chief Minister or make any disparaging remark about her health.
"The article states that the Chief Minister did not even attend the Iftar party in the first week of July and that she issued a written statement saying that she was unwell, and so, she is deputing Mr. O. Panneerselvam to attend the party. In the complaint, except making general denial in paragraph no.6, there is no specific repudiation of these facts, because, none can hide a pumpkin in a morsel of food. The whole world saw the swearing in ceremony of the ministers on 23rd May and the ceremony lasted for not more than 30 minutes", observed the bench.
In the complaint filed by the Government, it is alleged that the petitioners published an article on 10.07.2015 in their online website "Rediff.com", titled "CHENNAI MEDIA KNEW JAYA'S HEALTH WAS NOT FINE BUT KEPT MUM" and that article defamed the then Chief Minister Ms.J.Jayalalithaa in respect of conduct in the discharge of her public functions and therefore, the petitioners are liable to be punished under Section 499 r/w 500 IPC.
The High Court concluded that the impugned article to be not defamatory of the then Chief Minister Ms.J.Jayalalithaa in respect of her conduct in the discharge of her public functions warranting the prosecution of the petitioners for the offence under Section 499 r/w 500 IPC.
In May, the Madras HC had quashed the criminal defamation cases filed against a group of editors and journalists such as N Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan, Nakkeeran Gopal etc for their reports against Jayalalilathaa's government.
"The State should not be impulsive like an ordinary citizen in defamation matters and invoke section 199(2) Cr.P.C. to throttle democracy. Only in cases where there is foolproof material and when launching of prosecution under section 199(2) Cr.P.C. is inevitable, the said procedure can be invoked", the HC had observed.