A defamation complaint filed by Naeem Akhter, a senior leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and a former member of the J&K Legislative Assembly, against Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami and journalist Aditya Raj Kaul has been quashed by the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh (Aditya Raj Kaul & Ors v. Naeem Akhter).
The defamation proceedings pending before the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Srinagar were quashed by single-judge Justice Sanjay Dhar, who noted that the news broadcast in question was based on a letter written by one Khalid Jahangir and that no allegation was made by the news anchors or the channel.
The Judgement said that “After carefully watching the news programme on the compact CD attached to the complaint, I am unable to discover any imputation or claim made by the news program’s presenters. The anchors and presenters solely referred to Shri Khalid Jahangir’s letter and read out its contents several times”.
The television anchor also made it obvious to viewers that their information was based on the letter, according to the Court, and that the contents of the letter had yet to be established.
The Court ruled that “the channel has demonstrated that it is capable of broadcasting the programme with the care that is expected of a reputable news organisation. Given the circumstances, it is impossible to conclude that the accused intended to injure the complainant’s image”.
The case against Goswami and Kaul was filed in Srinagar’s Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in 2018 under sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code.
According to the complaint, Republic TV broadcast a defamatory and malicious news segment against the complainant on July 4, 2018, in response to a letter written to the Governor on June 21, 2018, by one Khalid Jahangir, a member of the Bhartiya Janta Party and former VC of J&K Projects Construction Corporation (JKPCC).
Jahangir had accused a close aide of the former Chief Minister of the State of corruption and favouritism in the letter. Despite the fact that the letter did not specify the complainant’s name, the complainant claims that Goswami purposefully and knowingly mentioned the complainant’s name in conjunction with the charges made in Jahangir’s letter while reporting on the letter.
The court, on the other hand, took notice of the petitioners and began proceedings against them, as well as issuing bailable warrants to ensure their attendance.
The petitioners challenged the complaint and the proceedings arising from it in the High Court, claiming that the allegations of corruption against the complainant were made by Jahangir in his letter to the Governor and that the petitioners only broadcast a news segment relating to these allegations.
Counsel representing the petitioners, Senior Advocate RA Jan and M/S Rajat Pradhan & Aswad Attar Advocates, argued that the letter in question was already in the public domain at the time of the alleged offence, and hence the petitioners were not found guilty.
It was also pointed out that the same news item based on Jahangir’s letter had been carried by several other news outlets.
The Court stated that the press, as the fourth pillar of democracy, has a duty to bring daily occurrences to the attention of viewers and readers, particularly those involving public figures and public officials and their actions/omissions affecting the general public.
It was also noted that there was no question that the respondent/complainant held the portfolio of Works Minister in the People’s Democratic Party- BJP Coalition Government during the time Khalid Jahangir was the VC of the JKPCC.
According to the Court, when a journalist publishes an exact and true article about a public figure relating to his public functions that is already in the public domain, it cannot be asserted that there was any desire to hurt that person’s reputation.
Senior counsel for the respondent vehemently argued that the terms “good faith” and “public good” appearing in exceptions to Section 499 (criminal defamation) of the Ranbir Penal Code are facts that can only be determined during the trial of the case, with the burden of proof always falling on the accused.
The Court agreed, but added that in this case, even the main ingredients of Section 499 RPC are not discernible from the contents of the complaint because the imputations published by the petitioners’ channel did not originate with them; rather, the originator of these imputations is someone else, namely Khalid Jahangir, who had written a letter to the Governor containing allegations against the respondent that made its way into the public domain.
The publication of allegations/charges concerning public duties of a public figure recorded in a letter that is in the public domain, if classified as defamation, would be an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of the press guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, according to the Court.
The Court also stated that the Magistrate did not apply his mind to the entire material before him when issuing process against the petitioners, despite the fact that in the case of complaints alleging the commission of a defamation offence, the responsibility of a Magistrate to examine the material on record is of a higher degree.
The Court quashed the proceedings because the order to issue a process against the accused/petitioners was not legally sustainable.