Constitutional Courts Must Proactively Safeguard Journalists Reporting Truthfully To Ensure Fearless News Dissemination: P&H HC

It is most refreshing to learn that the Punjab and Haryana High Court in a most learned, laudable, landmark, logical and latest judgment titled Vipin Pubby vs State of Haryana and another in CRM-M No. 39604 of 2018 (O&M) and cited in Neutral Citation No.: 2024:PHHC:000290 that was reserved on 16.04.2023 and then finally pronounced on 04.01.2024 has underscored the crucial role of Constitutional Courts in actively protecting journalists who report truthfully observing the importance of fearless news dissemination for an informed public. We thus see that the Court rightly allowed a petition that had been 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. It merits mentioning that 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.

Complaint No.556 of 2008 09.08.2008 499, 500, 501 IPC Judicial Magistrate Ist Class, Gurgaon (now Gurugram)

Criminal Revision No. Date of Decision Court 09 of 2016 CIS No. CRR/351/2016 CNR No.HRGR01-008822-2016 04-06-2018 Additional Sessions Judge, Gurugram.

At the very outset, this notable judgment authored by the Single Judge Bench comprising of Hon’ble Mr Justice Anoop Chitkara of Punjab and Haryana High Court sets the ball in motion by first and foremost putting forth in para 1 that, “An Editor of “The Indian Express” aggrieved by the dismissal of the criminal revision petition by the Sessions Court refusing to quash the summons issued in the above-captioned complaint filed for criminal defamation, had come up before this Court by filing the present petition under Section 482 CrPC.”

As we see, the Bench observes in para 2 that, “As per paragraph 2 of the petition, the petitioner declares that he was working as Editor (Chandigarh) of “The Indian Express” (Chandigarh Edition), printed and published by The Indian Express Private Limited, and at that time, the petitioner was a resident of Chandigarh and now, a resident of Panchkula.”

To put things in perspective, the Bench envisages in para 3 that, “The petitioner is aggrieved by the issuance of summons and the upholding of the said order by the Sessions Court in the above-captioned complaint filed by the respondent, Mr. Param Vir Rathee, IPS, against many journalists and political leaders, in all thirty-four people. The petitioner relies on many grounds, including the issue of cause and jurisdiction, and that even if the complaint is accepted as true, there is still no violation of section 499 IPC, nor did the petitioner act with any malice or intention to defame the complainant. The petitioner’s counsel submits that during the interregnum of pendency of this petition, the complainant has settled the matter with some of the respondents; however, no such settlement took place with the petitioner.”

Needless to say, the Bench states in para 11 that, “Feeling aggrieved, the petitioner came up before this court by filing this petition under section 482 CrPC, seeking to quash the summoning order and to set aside the dismissal of criminal revision.”

Do note, the Bench notes in para 20 that, “The petitioner’s main concern is that this complaint has been pending since 2008, and the complainant delayed its proceedings. The petitioner is not at fault, and he is facing the trauma of criminal proceedings, which is causing mental agony, draining out finances, and affecting the reputation of the petitioner, who is a senior journalist and ex-editor of a respected newspaper ‘Indian Express,’ which has set standards in investigative and fearless journalism. As such, the criminal complaint violates the petitioner’s fundamental rights, as provided under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India.”

Do also note, the Bench notes in para 23 that, “A bare reading of the news published in Indian Express points to investigative journalism where the complainant’s version was also reflected. The complainant nowhere states that his version was incorrectly mentioned or that the journalist had withheld its material aspects. The complainant did not plead in the complaint or establish in his testimony in the preliminary evidence any reasons or objectives for any oblique motive, malice, ill-will, mala fide intention of the petitioner, or intention to defame him. There is a conspicuous silence about it in the complaint, the statement before the court, and the reply filed to this petition. The following news extracts corroborate the unbiases and point out that the reporting had mentioned and highlighted the complainant’s response and the supporting version of the Superintendent of Police, Panchkula. The other news is unrelated to the complainant as such qua that he should not grumble.

“But Rathee claims he provided the security on the recommendations of district police officials who said Sharma faced “a threat to his life”.”

“Rathee refuted all allegations of receiving money from the accused.” I have never met the person. I don’t know why he is leveling such allegations against me,” said the ADGP.”

“On the other hand, SSP Sandeep Khirwar said the police cover was recommended only after Sharma lodged a police complaint against unknown persons threatening him over phone”.”

Be it noted, the Bench notes in para 24 that, “Before the journalist wrote the news, he took the complaint’s view into account and mentioned it in the news item, which shows that he adhered to the ethical standards of reasonableness and impartiality, which are key to journalism. One of the foundational responsibilities of a journalist is to seek the truth and report it with caution while not distorting or manipulating any facts. The respective journalist cross-checked the information, ascertained it, and explicitly mentioned the complainant’s version to rule out whether the facts were true or mere concocted lies or rumors. This crosschecking and accurate reporting of the complainant’s version demonstrates the journalist’s sense of responsibility and decency while prudently discharging his duties. What more can be expected from a journalist? The reporting itself proves by a preponderance of probability of due care and caution, and there is no reason why it should not be accepted as the discharging of their burden by the petitioner under S. 106 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Consequently, the Indian Express, its reporter, and its Editors are entitled to benefit under the first and the ninth exceptions to S. 499 IPC, and the petitioner has discharged his primary burden by demonstrating the contents of the news report itself and is entitled to the benefit of the first and ninth exception of S. 499 IPC.”

It merits noting that the Bench notes in para 33 that, “The reporter of Indian Express had explicitly mentioned the complainant’s denial and the corroboration of such denial from the SP Panchkula. A wholesome and complete reading by an ordinary prudent person would neither discredit nor lower the complainant’s image. However, if the witnesses read this news with colored spectacles, the report cannot be made liable for such misunderstanding.”

Most significantly, the Bench propounds in para 38 that, “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. 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.”

Quite significantly, the Bench observes in para 39 that, “The reporter and the newspaper did their jobs without committing any offense under section 499 IPC because they exercised restraints, and the news had the inbuilt safeguards, due care and caution, and reasonableness in the reported news. The reporter, Varun Chaddha, and the publisher, Indian Express, acted within the parameters of prudency and reasonableness, and whatever they wrote, they were entitled to publish under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.”

It is worth noting that the Bench notes in para 45 that, “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.”

To be sure, the Bench specifies in para 47 that, “Regarding the publication by the accused some of the other accused in their respective newspapers, neither the Indian Express nor its Editor (Petitioner) can be held responsible for the subsequent news reports, published in such newspapers.”

Finally and as a corollary, the Bench concludes by holding in para 54 that, “In the light of judicial precedents and appreciation of the complaint, the preliminary evidence led by the complainant, and its analysis makes it clear that the petitioner is entitled to the benefit of the first and ninth exceptions to S. 499 IPC, which makes the order of summoning bad in law. Even if the allegations against the petitioner mentioned in the complaint and the preliminary evidence are accepted entirely, those fails to point towards any actual violation of Section 499 IPC. In the facts and circumstances peculiar to this case, the court’s non-interference would result in a miscarriage of justice, and thus, this Court invokes the inherent jurisdiction under section 482 CrPC and quashes the summons and all subsequent proceedings as well as the judgment passed in the above captioned criminal revision. Bail bond(s)/surety Bond(s), if any, furnished, shall stand discharged. Petition is allowed. All pending application(s), if any, stand closed.”

In essence, the bottom-line of this most learned judgment by the Punjab and Haryana High Court is that the Constitutional Courts must proactively safeguard journalists reporting truthfully to ensure fearless news dissemination. The Constitutional Courts thus must act accordingly. No denying it!

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