The Punjab and Haryana High Court emphasized the crucial role of Constitutional Courts in actively protecting Journalists who report truthfully, observing the importance of fearless news dissemination for an informed public.

The Court allowed a Petition filed by the editor of The Indian Express seeking to quash a Criminal Defamation by an IPS Officer based on a news article alleging bribery and police protection recommendations.

The Court noted that both the reporter and publisher of the article had acted reasonably and prudently while exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of expression under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.

“To ensure honest and correct reporting of actual events, such journalists require the protection of courts, especially constitutional courts, to enable them to publish news without fear of harmful consequences. Thus, all courts must be more vigilant and proactive while safeguarding the interests of such courageous humans”, the Bench of Justice Anoop Chitkara observed.

Advocate Manu K. Bhandari appeared for the Petitioner, Advocate P. S. Poonia appeared for the Respondent and Additional Attorney General Rajat Gautam appeared for the State.

The Petitioner, an editor at The Indian Express, sought to quash a criminal defamation case filed by an IPS officer. The Complaint was based on a news article alleging bribery and police protection recommendations. The Petitioner argued jurisdictional issues and lack of defamation violation. The Complainant presented evidence refuting the claims. The Trial Court found prima facie evidence and issued summonses. The Petitioner asserted good faith in reporting and questioned the jurisdiction of the newspaper's circulation. The Petitioner contended that prolonged proceedings violate fundamental rights.

Journalism is civilization’s mirror, and investigative journalism it’s x-ray”, the Court noted. Quoting Avay Shukla, the Bench observed the significance of writing as an expression of freedom, contingent on an uncensored environment and a medium of expression.

Upon scrutinizing news from The Indian Express, the Court recognized it as investigative journalism, reflecting the complainant's version without distortion. The complainant had not alleged misrepresentation or malicious intent, and there was no mention of ulterior motives in the complaint. The Bench noted that the news extracts were cited to demonstrate unbiased reporting, highlighting both the complainant's response and the Superintendent of Police, Panchkula's supporting version.

Moreover, the Court observed that the journalist adhered to ethical standards by considering the complainant's perspective before writing the news. Emphasizing the foundational responsibility of journalists to seek and report the truth without distortion, the Bench noted that the journalist cross-checked and accurately reported the complainant's version. This demonstrated a sense of responsibility and decency in fulfilling their duties.

The Court observed that the reporting itself, through due care and caution, fulfilled the Petitioner's burden under Section 106 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (IEA), granting the Indian Express, its reporter, and editors the benefit of exceptions under Section 499 IPC. Relying upon Section 499, Explanation 4 of IPC, the Court noted that an imputation harms a person's reputation if it lowers their moral or intellectual character, caste, calling, credit, or causes a belief in a disgraceful state of their body.

The Court emphasized that the reporter of the Indian Express explicitly mentioned the complainant's denial and its corroboration by the SP Panchkula. A comprehensive reading by an ordinary prudent person would not discredit or lower the complainant's image.

In the First Exception, the Bench noted that Section 499 allows imputations of truth for public good, and the Ninth Exception permits imputations made in good faith for the protection of interests, observing the vital role of journalism in democracy.

Journalism is the fourth pillar of any Democracy. As a journalist, the reporter’s sacrosanct duty is loyalty towards the citizenry. They serve as independent monitors of power, reporting information for public good and safety, addressing any problems or lacunae in the public system for its effective functioning and immediate redressal. In the fearless pursuit of their duties to uncover the truth and report such facts to the masses through media, these brave journalists do face various hurdles, e.g., pressures from influential parties, groups, or government agencies etc”, the Bench observed.

Consequently, the Court held that the reporter and the newspaper did not commit any offence under Section 499 IPC because they exercised restraint, and the news had inherent safeguards, due care, caution, and reasonableness. Both the reporter and the publisher of the Indian Express had acted prudently and reasonably, and their publication was within the constitutional rights of freedom of expression under Articles 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Additionally, the Bench noted, “a complete reading of the news, which contained the complainant’s rebuttal, his version, the version of the police, can be stated to have been published in good faith and discharge of their functions in a democracy, and if restrictions are created to publish such news, it would be just like killing a mockingbird”. The Court clarified that neither Indian Express nor its editor can be held responsible for subsequent news reports published in other newspapers by different accused.

The Court further noted the Petitioner’s contention that there was no credible evidence to establish that the complainant's reputation was lowered due to the news report, as none of the complainant's witnesses explicitly mentioned reading Chandigarh Newsline. The petitioner pointed out that Chandigarh Newsline is circulated only in the Chandigarh area, and there is no indication of how these witnesses accessed the newspaper. The absence of information on social media platforms like WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, email, or posts further weakens the complainant's case.

In this context, the Court observed, “the primary burden to meet the requirements of S. 202 CrPC was on the complainant, and the satisfaction was of the concerned Court because the accused was residing in Chandigarh, far away from Gurgaon, and not on the accused. It is not that the concerned Judicial Magistrate disallowed any such evidence, question, or examination of any such witness or restricted the complainant from proving its prima facie case in compliance with section 202 CrPC”.

The last argument on behalf of the petitioner is the protection under Section 7 of the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867. Section 7 of the Press and Registration of Books Act of 1867 raises the presumption regarding a person named the Editor and printed as such on every newspaper copy. The Act does not recognize any other legal entity for raising the presumption.

Accordingly, the Court allowed the Petition.

Cause Title: Vipin Pubby v State of Haryana and another (2024:PHHC:000290)

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