Our Indian constitutional right allows us the freedom of speech and expression. But that does not mean we can say or write up whatever we want, particularly the media.
The Supreme Court on Thursday asked a Gujarat trial court not to proceed till April 12 with the criminal defamation complaint of Jay Shah, son of BJP president Amit Shah, against news portal ‘The Wire’ and its scribes, even as he chided the media for projecting “whatever they feel like” against a person.
A visibly irked Chief Justice Dipak Misra gave the media a tongue lashing, especially TV channels and news portals, and asked, “Can somebody reproduce something in official/public domain and add something ‘defamatory’ to it? Are innuendos in the realm of defense or realm of freedom. Can they write whatever they want? What they write sometimes amounts to serious contempt of court. Is this journalism? Electronic media should be more responsible. I do not want to name channels, but some people think they are Popes sitting on the pulpit, passing judgment. They should be more responsible and the realization must dawn upon them,” the bench, also comprising Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud, said.
The bench issued a notice to Shah and other co-petitioner who had filed the defamation complaint against the portal and its journalists including author Rohini Singh and asked them to respond in two weeks. At the outset, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for the portal and scribes, said the article contained details from records which are in “public domain electronically”. “This is how journalism is throttled in this country. A journalist has no right to question how profits went up by Rs 80 crore,” the lawyer pointed out and demanded how can journalism flourish in such circumstances.
The bench said there were two issues — whether factual additions in the article were defamatory or not, and can the editors, who were not part of the article, be also made parties. Another senior advocate Raju Ramachandran said that even the Managing Editor has been “roped in”. Senior advocate Neeraj Kishan Kaul, appearing for Shah, vehemently countered Sibal saying that facts are in public domain, but was it permissible to “selectively” use the information and lace them with innuendos. It was “scurrilous” reporting.
“Can you selectively pick up facts, concoct them with a motive. It is a manufactured controversy,” Kaul said, adding that the controversy has been created because the father of Shah happened to be the head of a political party; also, they did not carry the version of Jay at the first instance.
The story published by ‘The Wire’ was a manufactured story and “an example of irresponsible journalism”, he said, adding that the reasoned and detailed order of the trial court and the Gujarat High Court, which even quoted the apex court verdicts, should not be stayed. Freedom of speech and expression cannot be used to damage the reputation of a person, Kaul said.
The CJI, who said his observations have “nothing to do with this case”, was critical of the electronic media and said they sometimes wrote completely baseless stories on their websites to defame people. Sibal said journalists vilify politicians but there should not be defamation in each case. He added that if the son of a politician (Shah) has been vilified, there was another politician (Chidambaram) whose son is also being vilified. He then referred to the tweet of an eminent person from Chennai who had allegedly tweeted about a Delhi High Court judge who had heard Karti’s case, saying that he was once junior to Congress leader and senior lawyer P Chidambaram.
“No action was taken. This court should have taken a suo motu note of this defamatory tweet,” Sibal said. During the hearing, the CJI said ‘’I have said many times we are not going to gag media. The question of gagging media does not arise. But the press should be more responsible.’’ “How can anyone write whatever he feels about anyone. There are limits,” the CJI observed. “… their writing sometimes amounts to sheer contempt of court,” he added.
The high court had on January 8 rejected a plea filed by the news portal, seeking quashing of the defamation complaint filed against it by Jay over an article related to his company. He had moved the lower court alleging defamation by the petitioners after the article published by the website claimed his company’s turnover grew exponentially after the BJP-led government came to power at the Centre in 2014.
The complaint was filed against the author of the article Rohini Singh, founding editors of the news portal Siddharth Varadarajan, Siddharth Bhatia and MK Venu, managing editor Monobina Gupta, public editor Pamela Philipose and the Foundation for Independent Journalism. The foundation publishes The Wire. Jay has separately filed a civil defamation suit of Rs 100 crore against the website over the article. He has also rejected the charges made in the article, insisting that the story was “false, derogatory and defamatory”.