juristocracy

This article has been written by Anindita Deb, a student from Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA. The objective of this article is to analyse one of the landmark cases of freedom of speech and expression under the Indian Constitution. 

Introduction

People must have the right to express their feelings and make their opinions known to the general public in order to preserve the democratic way of life. The press, as a potent medium of mass information, should be allowed to play a part in the development of a strong and sustainable society. Denying citizens journalistic freedom would inevitably weaken their ability to influence public opinion and would go against the spirit of democracy. This case deals with the exercise of reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression of the press. 

The freedom of the press is a part of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, as was declared in the case of Romesh Thapar v. the State of Madras in the year 1950. However, the right to freedom of speech is subject to some reasonable restrictions contained in Article 19(2) which states that the right to freedom of speech and expression may be limited in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, public order, decency and morality and also in the light of certain provisions under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and defamation.

The case of Sanjoy Narayan, Editor in Chief Hindustan v. Hon. Allahabad High Court is used to date as a landmark judgement by lawyers to put forward their arguments in cases involving the Constitutional right of freedom of speech and expression. In this case, the Supreme Court acknowledged the importance of balancing the right to free speech and press with the right to privacy. The lawsuit arose after a newspaper report regarding the then-Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court was determined to be factually inaccurate. Given below is the case analysis for the same. 

Facts of the case

In September 2010, the Appellants, the Hindustan Times, issued a newspaper report on 20th September 2010, about the then-Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court. The report was incorrect and based on prejudiced charges and supposition, according to the Allahabad High Court, and was sufficiently defamatory in nature to impair the Chief Justice’s reputation. As a result, the Chief Justice initiated a contempt proceeding against the Appellants for tarnishing his and the institution’s reputations. Following that, the Appellants issued an apology for the publication of the disputed piece. The Allahabad High Court dismissed the application, prompting the current appeal.

Issue

The issue at hand, in this case, was whether the Appellants’ freedom of the press enshrined as a part of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution can be subject to reasonable restrictions.

Judgment

While the media, as the “fourth pillar of democracy,” was responsible for moulding public opinion, upholding state accountability, and ensuring individual participation in governance, the Court noted that it also had a considerable responsibility in honestly carrying out that role. Under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, the right to free expression was limited by the state and public interest, as well as contempt of court and defamation.

The Court went on to say that the sole reason the Appellants’ apology to the Chief Justice and the Allahabad High Court was rejected was that it wasn’t unqualified. The Court decided that it was reasonable to accept the Appellants’ unqualified apology after they filed an affidavit later, and consequently ordered the contempt proceedings against them to be dismissed on the condition that the apology is published at some prominent place of the Lucknow edition of the Hindustan Times newspaper. 

Observations of the Court

While deciding the case, the following observations were put forth by the Apex Court in the matter:

  • The media, whether electronic or print, is commonly referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy. The media, in all of its forms, whether electronic or print, has the onerous task of keeping the public informed and engaged.
  • The media has a responsibility to ensure that they do not provide the public with information that is factually incorrect, biased, or simply unsubstantiated because of the enormous volume of data they handle.
  • The media’s power must be properly regulated and balanced against an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. Any inaccurate or prejudiced information presented has the potential to harm the otherwise clean and decent reputation of the person or institution being scrutinized.
  • A newspaper piece, which appeared to be based on assumptions and conjectures rather than facts and figures, was used to smear the image of then-Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court. The dignity of the courts, as well as the public’s trust in government, must not be compromised by biased and unverified reportage.

Analysis

The Court noted in its decision that press and media freedom needed to be effectively regulated in order to prevent invasions of personal privacy and reputational injury. It went on to say that, while the right to information and freedom of the press are basic democratic values, they can be curtailed for a variety of reasons, including those listed in Article 19(2) and the right to privacy. The Court thus connected the right to reputation with that of privacy. 

In allowing the apology and dismissing the appeal, the Court has also tried to convey that the judiciary must be generous in accepting an apology submitted in the form of a duly sworn affidavit expressing regret for the publication. This shows that they are aware of their error and wrong. The Court mentioned that it has also stated time and time again that it is not hypersensitive in matters involving the Contempt of Courts Act, and that it has always shown magnanimity in accepting the apology.

Conclusion

Freedom of the press has been established as an integral part of the right to freedom of speech and expression provided under Article 19. The press enjoys the same freedom and regulation of speech as any ordinary citizen and is subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The legal system of India has witnessed various landmark judgments that have granted the freedom of speech to the press in order to maintain transparency in the system and to keep the citizens informed which is essential for the functioning of a vibrant democracy. However, the Apex Court has also imposed restrictions on this right so there is no exploitation of this freedom by the press. This system of check and balance is important to ensure that the media does not propagate unverified and biased news to the population of the country. 

References


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