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Madras HC quashes complaints of criminal defamation filed under section 199(2) of CrPC: The state cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy

Deeksha Chugh ,
  25 May 2020       Share Bookmark

Court :
Madras High Court
Brief :
Madras High Court in the case of N.Ram and ors. vs UOI and ors., quashed the complaints filed in 2012 against a group of editors and journalists alleging “criminal defamation against the state” in few reports against J Jayalalitha, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Citation :
N.Ram and ors. vs UOI and ors

WHAT WAS THE CASE ABOUT?   

Madras High Court in the case of N.Ram and ors. vs UOI and ors., quashed the complaints filed in 2012 against a group of editors and journalists alleging “criminal defamation against the state” in few reports against J Jayalalitha, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

The complaints were filed by the Public Prosecutor before Sessions Court under Section 1992(2) of the code of criminal procedure.

UNDERSTANDING THE LEGAL PROVISION INVOLVED IN THE CASE:

Section 199(2) of CrPC states that court of session will take cognizance to offences which are punishable under Chapter XXI of the Indian Penal Code, alleged to have been committed against the President of India, the Vice President of India, the governor of a state, the administrator of a union territory or any other public servant in respect of his conduct or discharge of duty, the cognizance can be taken upon a complaint by the public prosecutor.

The primary object behind this special provision is to provide a protection to the high dignitaries and other public servants employed in connection with the affairs or union or state.

The writ petitions filed in the High Court challenged the constitutional validity of the government orders granting sanction to the Public Prosecutor to file complaints under Section 199(2) CrPC in respect of the reports of the journalists and editors.

QUESTIONS RAISED BEFORE THE HIGH COURT:   

  1. What is meant by criminal defamation against the state and what is the statutory criterion required for launching prosecution under Section 199(2)?
  2. Under what circumstances a Public Prosecutor can launch Prosecution under S. 199(2)?
  3. What are the mandatory pre-requisites to be satisfied by state before sanctioning criminal defamation through Public Prosecutor?
  4. What is the role played by a Public Prosecutor and his duties in a prosecution launched by him under S.199(2)?

FACTS OF THE CASE:        

Several newspapers challenged the launching or prosecution of Criminal defamation against them under Section 499 IPC by the State Government through the Public Prosecutor under Section 199(2) Cr.P.C

  1. Petitioners in the case N.Ram, B. Kolappan,S. Padmanab, Siddharth Vardarajan etc. published various articles which were alleged to be defamatory.

CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES:     

Submissions made by the petitioners:

Petitioners contended that freedom of press is the foundation of a democratic society and airing a criticism would not amount to defamation. Defamation in relation to those holding public office or the Government is qualitatively different from defamation in respect of private individuals. The news item was not pertaining to the conduct of the public functionary in discharge of his/her functions. Also, it was contended that the complaints are an attempt to interfere with the fundamental right of free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

Submissions of the Government:

It was contended that according sanction to the City Public Prosecutor was passed by the Authority in accordance with statutory mandate and so the validity of the sanction accorded cannot be tested by way of filing a writ petition.

WHAT WAS HELD BY THE COURT?                 

  • The bench headed by Justice Abdul Quddhose held that there is a higher threshold for state to initiate criminal defamation than in cases of inter-se private parties. He observed that, “The Criminal defamation law is meant for a laudable object in real cases of necessity and cannot be misused by using the State as a tool to settle scores of a public servant/constitutional functionary over his/her adversary. A public servant/constitutional functionary must be able to face criticism. As public servants/constitutional functionaries, they owe a solemn duty to the people. The state cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy.”
  • It was also observed that state should maintain higher tolerance with respect to criticism; it should not be impulsive to invoke Section 199(2). The state has to show utmost restraint in filing criminal defamation cases.
  • The court also said that state is like a parent for all citizens as far as defamation law is concerned and it is normal to face some insults from their children. The tolerance level of state towards its citizens must be akin to that of parents.
  • The judgment also highlighted the importance of dissent in democracy and criticized the growing tendency to use criminal law to silence dissenting opinions.
  • Court referred to the principles laid down by the apex court in the case of Subramaniam Swamy vs UOI regarding the use of criminal defamation. The court also highlighted the higher level of scrutiny required by a sessions court under Section 199(2) before taking cognizance. The sessions court has to independently apply its judicial mind and then take cognizance upon its satisfaction.
  • The court further went on stating that the public prosecutor should not act like a ‘post office’ to merely file complaints. The role played by Public Prosecutor under Section 199(2) is very vital as he plays a dual role both as a person representing the public servant as well as a public prosecutor.
  • The court also noted the importance of the media to exercise self-regulation and introspect from within to help in nation building for the betterment of future generations.
  • It was held that the pleadings in the respective complaints do not spell out any defamation of the state and so the complaints were quashed.
 
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