The current practice of multiple criminal cases being filed in different parts of the country against a person for allegedly making a defamatory statement must be put to an end as it would lead to anarchy and the accused would himself end up being a victim, the Supreme Court observed on Thursday.
Further, expressing concern over the misuse of social media and internet, particularly after Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was declared to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal’s case, a bench comprising of Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C Pant also said Parliament should bring a new law to regulate the social media.
The Court was hearing a batch of petitions challenging the validity of criminal defamation provisions in the IPC.
"Section 66A was quashed because it was not properly drafted and was vague. We can ask Parliament to bring a new law. We have earlier also suggested Parliament to enact a law on other issues and we can suggest it to pass a legislation on this issue also," the bench said
The court made the above observation after senior advocate L Nageswara Rao informed the bench that a message was recently circulated on WhatsApp that he was involved in a case registered under Section 376 of IPC (rape). Nageswara Rao told the bench that he came to know about the malicious campaign only when the secretary of Supreme Court Bar Association informed him about it and he got calls from various people.
Nageswara Rao, who appeared for the Tamil Nadu government, strongly pleaded for retention of the defamation law. He said in the present era of internet and social media, such criminal provision has become more relevant.
Senior advocate K Parasaran, who is assisting the court as amicus curiae, also cited a recent incident in which wrong information regarding him was widely circulated on the social media.
The bench agreed that people should not be given free hand to run malicious campaign on social media and a new law should be enacted to curb such acts.
[Editor’s note: In Shreya Singhal, Supreme Court had quashed the controversial provision (section 66A IT Act) in view of its misuse by the police and government authorities. "Section 66A is so widely cast that virtually any opinion on any subject would be covered by it, as any serious opinion dissenting with the mores of the day would be caught within its net. Such is the reach of the section and if it is to withstand the test of constitutionality, the chilling effect of free speech would be total," the Apex court had said in its landmark judgment. The court had, however, agreed that there was a need for some mechanism to put checks and balances on online media.
"We make it clear that there is an intelligible differentia between speech on the internet and other mediums of communication for which separate offences can certainly be created by legislation," the court had made clear in its judgment.]
It may also be recalled that the Ministry of Home Affairs has formed a panel headed by former Law Secretary, Law Commission and Secretary General Lok Sabha, T K Vishwanathan to examine the implications of the Apex Court judgment and “suggest restoring of 66A of Information Technology Act 2000 with suitable modifications and safeguards to make it fully compatible with constitutional provisions.” This was stated by Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in a written reply to Rajya Sabha. The MHA has asked the panel to put forward alternate legal measures to avoid the possible misuse of social media in the interest of National Security and maintenance of public order.
The bench while hearing the cases challenging the validity of criminal defamation also said that when a defamatory statement is made against an organization or organized group of people, all their members should not be allowed to file case. It said only the organization itself or a person authorized by it should be allowed to pursue the complaint against the accused.
The court also wondered how an RSS 'prachark' was entitled to file a complaint against Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi for allegedly making defamatory statements against the organization. "There must be some authorization on behalf of the organization to file the complaint. What will happen if each pracharak starts filing case in different parts of the country? Everyone will then try to become protagonist," the bench comprising of Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C Pant said.
The Secretary of Bhiwandi unit of the RSS, Rajesh Kunte had filed a criminal defamation case against the Gandhi scion for making a statement linking the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi with RSS.
Senior advocate KK Venugopal, appearing for Maharashtra, submitted that reputation of each member of RSS was affected by the defamatory statement and they are entitled to file separate complaints.
"Multiplicity of cases cannot be ground to take away rights of members of the organization to file the case. Don't destroy rights of a class of persons," Venugopal replied. He said if a defamatory statement is made against a particular caste, all members of that caste are entitled to file the case.
The bench, however, said in such a situation it would be very difficult for an accused to handle cases filed in courts across the country.
"It would lead to anarchy. There should be one complaint for collection of people. The group should take a collective decision on who should file the case. A person cannot be forced to face multiple cases for one offence. Something needs to be done," it said.
Venugopal, however told the bench, "Your lordship is looking from the point of the accused. Your approach should be to protect victims."
"They (persons facing multiple defamation cases) are also calling themselves victims. So we are dealing with two classes of victims. We are not saying that you cannot file the case but there should be a procedure," the bench responded.
The Apex Court had stayed criminal defamation proceedings against Rahul Gandhi while hearing his petition challenging the constitutional validity of Sections 499 and 500 of Indian Penal Code which make defamation an offence punishable with imprisonment up to a 2-year in jail.