Madras HC ruling enhances press freedom

Madras HC ruling enhances press freedom

The Madras High Court has reaffirmed the value and importance of freedom of expression by quashing 28 defamation cases against editors and journalists filed by the Tamil Nadu government during 2011-13 when the late J Jayalalithaa was the chief minister. The judgement is important not only because it threw out so many defamation cases against various media organisations in the state but also because it has set limits for governments in taking action for defamation in a democratic system. Jayalalithaa was intolerant of criticism and during her tenure many defamation cases were filed against journalists for reports which were critical of her or her government. This practice has existed in other states also and media organisations and journalists have been subjected to frequent harassment. Multiple cases are sometimes filed against them from various places. The High Court’s ruling and observations will hopefully serve as the norm and put an end to this practice, especially when the State sets out to prosecute the media for defamation. 

The court made it clear that there was a higher threshold for the State to initiate criminal defamation against citizens, compared to ordinary cases of defamation involving private parties, and that it cannot be impulsive to launch prosecution. Public servants and constitutional functionaries should not misuse the law of criminal defamation by using the State as a tool to initiate proceedings against critics. The court also held that there was no case of defamation even if a report contained some inaccuracies. The case for criminal defamation is made only when an imputation is made “recklessly with malice.” Earlier this month, another bench of the court, again quashing charges against two journalists, had said that defamation cases had become a tool of intimidation by powerful politicians and corporates and the judiciary had the duty to protect the fundamental rights and the freedom of the press in such cases. 

The principles laid down by the court and its comments are relevant when many rights of citizens, including freedom of the press, are facing challenges and threats in many ways. Cases are foisted and financial pressure is used, and there are threats of, and even actual use of, violence. Harassment and suppression take many forms. The court found that there were 226 cases filed against journalists in the state. It should be noted that the Jayalalithaa government had filed cases against journalists even after the Supreme Court had quashed some cases and warned against the practice. In a country where corruption is endemic, it is important to prevent such brazen harassment and intimidation of journalists and media organisations.

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