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Case Law Details

Case Name : Mahua Moitra Vs Directorate of Enforcement And Ors (Delhi High Court)
Appeal Number : W.P.(C) 2676/2024 & CM APPL. 10932/2024
Date of Judgement/Order : 23/02/2024
Related Assessment Year :

Mahua Moitra Vs Directorate of Enforcement And Ors (Delhi High Court)

Introduction: In a significant ruling, the Delhi High Court dismissed a writ petition filed by former Member of Parliament, Mahua Moitra, against the Directorate of Enforcement (ED) and other respondents. Moitra sought to prevent the ED from allegedly leaking confidential information about an investigation involving her to the media. This decision underscores the balance between the right to privacy of individuals under investigation and the public’s right to be informed about matters involving public figures.

Detailed Analysis: Mahua Moitra, a prominent political figure and member of the All India Trinamool Congress Party, was under investigation by the ED for alleged violations of the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999. Moitra contended that the ED had leaked information about the investigation and the issuance of summons to her before she had even received them. These leaks, according to Moitra, included sensitive information about potential allegations against her, thereby violating her right to privacy and dignity.

The court’s decision was influenced by several key considerations:

  • Public Interest vs. Privacy: The court noted that public figures are subject to a higher level of scrutiny and that the public has a right to be informed about investigations concerning them. This was balanced against the need to protect the individuals’ privacy rights.
  • Advisory on Media Policy: Both the ED and the Union of India assured the court that they were following the government’s advisory on media policy, which aims to ensure that information shared with the media does not hamper the investigation process or infringe on individuals’ legal rights.
  • Media’s Self-regulatory Mechanism: The court recognized the media’s self-regulatory mechanism, including the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards, which mandates impartiality, objectivity, and respect for privacy.
  • Freedom of Press: Citing precedents, the court affirmed the importance of freedom of the press in a democratic society, stating that the dissemination of news, especially regarding public figures, is crucial for public discourse.

Conclusion: The Delhi High Court’s dismissal of Mahua Moitra’s writ petition against the ED and media outlets marks a significant stance on the interplay between individual privacy rights and the public’s right to information. By emphasizing the accountability of public figures and the role of the media in a democracy, the court has delineated the boundaries within which investigations involving public personalities can be reported. This judgment serves as a reminder of the delicate balance that needs to be maintained between ensuring transparency and safeguarding the privacy and dignity of individuals under investigation.

FULL TEXT OF THE JUDGMENT/ORDER OF DELHI HIGH COURT

1. The Petitioner has approached this Court to direct Respondent No.1/ED from preventing any information from being leaked, including any confidential, sensitive, unverified/unconfirmed information, to the print / electronic media in relation to the ongoing investigation / proceedings carried out by Respondent No.1/ED under F No: T-3/HIU-II/04/2024, under which Summons have been issued to the Petitioner, amongst other prayers.

2. The Petitioner herein is a former elected Member of Parliament from Krishnanagar, West Bengal constituency and is a member of the All India Trinamool Congress Party (AITC). An investigation has been initiated by the Respondent No.1/ED against the Petitioner for an alleged violation of the provisions of Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999. It is the case of the Petitioner that Respondent No.1/ED had issued summons to the Petitioner on 14.02.2024, calling upon her to appear physically before the Respondent No.1/ED on 19.02.2024 along with certain documents. It is stated that the said summons were received at the address on 16.02.2024. It is stated that the news articles in question were published regarding these summons issued by Respondent No.1/ED to the Petitioner even before the Petitioner received the summons. It is stated that certain news pertaining to the investigation has also been published, which according to the Petitioner has been leaked by the Respondent No.1/ED. It is the case of the Petitioner that the Respondent No.1/ED has leaked information regarding issuance of summons to the Petitioner even before the Petitioner received the summons; the information regarding extension of time of three weeks sought by the Petitioner for complying with the summons dated 02.2024; and the fact that the Petitioner’s request for extension was being rejected and a fresh summons had been issued directing compliance of summons by 26.02.2024. It is also stated that sensitive information of potential allegations, against the Petitioner, which are part of the subject matter of the investigation being carried out by Respondent No.1/ED, are also being leaked to the press. The Petitioner has, therefore, approached this Court by filing the instant writ petition stating that the press reports are violating her right to privacy and dignity and right of fair investigation.

3. Learned Senior Counsel appearing for the Petitioner, apart from reiterating the averments made in the writ petition, has placed reliance upon the Judgments passed by a Coordinate Bench of this Court in P.(C) 15617/2022 in the case of Vijay Nair vs. Central Bureau of Investigation & Ors dated 21.11.2022 and in Disha A. Ravi vs. State of (NCT of Delhi) and Others, 2021 SCC OnLine Del 822.

4. Learned Senior Counsel appearing for the Petitioner has drawn attention of this Court to the Advisory on Media Policy issued by the Government of India vide Office Memorandum dated 01.04.2010 regarding sharing of information by the investigating agency with the public through media.

5. Learned Counsel appearing for the Respondent No.1/ED has categorically denied that Respondent No.1/ED is leaking any sensitive information to the press regarding the investigation being carried out against the Petitioner and states that the Respondent No.1/ED is scrupulously following the Office Memorandum dated 01.04.2010 which is the advisory on media policy regarding sharing of information by the investigating agency with the public through media.

6. Mr. Chetan  Sharma,  learned  ASG  appearing  for  Respondent No.2/Union of India, also contends that the Union of India has given directives to various Departments to scrupulously follow the Advisory on Media Policy issued by the Government of India vide Office Memorandum dated 01.04.2010.

7. Learned Counsel for Respondent No.3/ANI states that the material which has been reported is based on sourced information obtained by the media. He states that the newspapers cuttings and other reports only state facts which are borne out of records. He further states that the Petitioner is a former Member of Parliament and is a public personality and people are entitled to know about the investigation that is being carried out against the Petitioner.

8. Heard learned Counsel appearing for the Parties and perused the material on record.

9. The Government of India has issued an Advisory on Media Policy vide Office Memorandum dated 01.04.2010 regarding sharing of information by the investigating agency with the public through media. The said Advisory lays down the precautions that need to be taken to ensure that only authentic and appropriate information is shared without hampering the process of investigation and issues of legal/privacy rights of the accused/victims and matters of strategic and national interest. The said Advisory reads as under:

The said Advisory reads as under

The said Advisory reads as under images 1

The said Advisory reads as under images 2

10. The statement of the learned Counsel for Respondent No.1/ED and Respondent No.2/UoI, that the Advisory on Media Policy issued by the Government of India vide Office Memorandum dated 01.04.2010 regarding sharing of information by the investigating agency with the public through media are being scrupulously followed is taken on record.

11.  The Members of Electronic Media have come out with a self- regulatory mechanism and have laid down the Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards and some of the provisions of Code of Ethics include Impartiality and objectivity in reporting, ensuring neutrality and privacy of the persons involved. The Respondents No.3 to 21 are bound by the Code of Ethics and no further Orders need to be passed regulating them further.

12. It is well settled that modern communication mediums advance public interest by informing the public of the events and developments that takes place in a democratic set-up. Dissemination of news and views for popular consumption is a must and any attempt to deny the same has always frowned upon by Courts. It is also equally well settled that freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) includes freedom of press and communication needs in a democratic society i.e., the right to be informed and the right to inform, however, not at the cost of right to privacy. The Apex Court in Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. vs. Union of India, (1985) 1 SCC 641 has observed as under:

“In today’s free world freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible in a large scale particularly in the developing world where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments. News- papers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which would not be palatable to governments and other authorities. The authors of the articles which are published in the newspapers have to be critical of the actions of government in order to expose its weaknesses. Such articles tend to become an irritant or even a threat to power.”

13. The Petitioner herein is a former elected Member of Parliament and a public figure. The people are entitled to know about any news regarding the public figures. The accountability of persons who are public figures towards society is higher and they are subject to a higher level of public gaze and scrutiny. A Division Bench of this Court in Multi Screen Media (P) Ltd. v. Vidya Dhar, 2013 SCC OnLine Del 842, while dealing with balancing the right of privacy and freedom of press of public figures, has observed as under:

“30. Merely because a publication pertains to a Court proceeding one should not rush to a conclusion to opine prima facie that it either tends to impair the impartiality of the Court or affects the ability of the Court to determine the true facts. One has to carefully see the nature of the publication and find out : Whether keeping in view the content of the publication there appears to be a real and substantial danger of prejudice to the trial of a case.

31. One more important factor to be kept in mind. If a public figure is involved in a litigation and the matter pertains to the affairs of the State, the right of the public to be informed of the evidence led at the litigation having a bearing on how the public figure discharged the fiduciary duty while conducting the affairs of the State would have to be given primacy over the interest of the individual, for the reason those who enter public life and enjoy the perks of the State would be accountable at a higher level of probity and would be subject to a higher level of public gaze and scrutiny.”

(emphasis supplied)

14. Since public figures are subject to closer scrutiny, unless the publications amount to harassment and invasion in private life of the individual public personality concerned or the family of the public personality, publications regarding the public life of such public personalities cannot be stopped from being published either by the Government or by the Orders of the Court [Refer: Kailash Gahlot vs. Vijender Gupta and Ors, 2022 SCC OnLine Del 679].

15. This Court has carefully perused the various news articles which have been annexed with the writ petition. The newspaper cuttings do not deal with the private life of the Petitioner but are only reporting’s regarding the investigation that is being conducted against the Petitioner who is a public figure and same is unrelated to her private life. There is nothing in the news articles which would have the effect of invading into the privacy of the Petitioner or tend to impair the impartiality of the investigation or that it can have the effect of prejudicing the trial of the Petitioner in the event it is initiated. It is well settled that Gag Orders against the media can be passed only when it has the potential to prejudice any investigation or an ongoing trial.

16. In view of the statement made by the learned Counsel for Respondent No.1/ED that the Advisory on Media Policy issued by the Government of India vide Office Memorandum dated 01.04.2010 has been and is being followed, and after perusing the news articles, this Court is of the opinion that the reliefs as sought for by the Petitioner by way of the present writ petition need not be granted at this stage.

17. In view of the above, the writ petition is dismissed, along with pending application(s), if any.

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