The Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh High Court on Wednesday quashed a defamation complaint filed by Naeem Akhter, a senior leader of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) against the Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV, Arnab Goswami, and journalist Aditya Raj Kaul.
The Bench of Justice Sanjay Dhar said that no offence was disclosed against the petitioners (Aditya Raj Kaul and others) and petitioners in their capacity of anchors and reporters of the news channel have disseminated whatever was already in public domain.
Quashing the complaint, Court stated, “The press….has a bounden duty to bring to the notice of the viewers and readers the day-to-day events, particularly those relating to public figures and public servants concerning their actions/omissions affecting the public at large.”
Therefore, court held that when a journalist publishes accurate and true report in respect of a public figure relating to his public functions, which is already in public domain, it cannot be stated that there was any intention to harm the reputation of such person.
Court was hearing a petition filed by Aditya Raj Kaul and others challenging a defamation complaint filed by the PDP leader, who is also a former J&K Legislative Assembly member, in 2018 before the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Srinagar.
In his complaint, Akhter had alleged that on July 4, 2018, Republic TV had broadcasted a defamatory and malicious news segment against him with a mala fide intention to cause irreparable damage to his reputation.
Akhter had alleged that Mr. Goswami mentioned Akhter’s name in connection with the allegations of corruption and favouritism against a close aide of former Chief Minister of the State that were leveled in a letter written by one Khalid Jahangir, a BJP member on June 21, 2018. Akhter had said that Jahangir's letter did not even mention anyone’s name.
Akhter had further contended that the anchors of the programme i.e., including Aditya Raj Kaul, repeatedly and intentionally, kept on mentioning his name in connection with the allegations made in the letter.
Subsequently, the CJM court took cognizance of Akhter’s complaint and initiated the process against petitioners u/s 499 and 500 RPC, and also issued bailable warrants for securing their attendance.
In the present plea, the petitioners have submitted that the allegations of corruption against the complainant were not made by the petitioners but these were made by Mr. Khalid Jahangir in his letter itself.
They had contended that the broadcast was concerning the conduct of a public servant in discharge of his public duties and the same was aired in good faith for public good. They said that the broadcast reported fairly the contents of the letter which contained serious allegations of corruption in relation to the working of the JKPCC and the manner in which contracts/works were awarded to third parties.
At this outset, stressing that mens rea is a condition precedent to constitute the offence of defamation, the Court observed that without intention or knowledge, this offence would not be constituted.
Thus, the Court opined,
"...we have to balance the hand the freedom of press which is encompassed in the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, which is subject to certain restrictions including the one relating to defamation."
Court noted that in his letter, Mr. Jahangir leveled allegation against the Works Minister who was none other than Mr. Akhter.
Naeem Akhter was holding the portfolio of Works Minister in the coalition Government of People's Democratic Party and Bhartiya Janta Party during the period when the letter was written in 2018.
"The reporting of contents of letter written by Shri Khalid Jahangir touching the official functioning of the department that was under the Ministry headed by the complainant, would not amount to offence of defamation," the Court therefore held.
Importantly, noting that while telecasting the programme, the channel had taken due care that is expected of a responsible news channel, the Court remarked,
" In fact, upon watching the programme on the compact disk, it appears that the news anchors were at pains to emphasize the fact that their source of information is the letter in question and they go on repeatedly telling the viewers about the charges/allegations with each caption carrying question mark(?) at its end, thereby conveying to the viewers that the allegations/charges contained in the letter are yet to be established."
Therefore, the court ruled that it cannot be stated that the accused intended to harm the reputation of the complainant as the letter was already in public domain and was being reported by other media channels as well.
Case title - Aditya Raj Kaul and Ors. V. Naeem Akhter
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