The Supreme Court verdict which reminded that protection of freedom of expression is of paramount importance in democracy and that tolerance and coexistence form its core, should open everyone’s eyes.
The apex court on Monday ruled that defamation was a serious matter and that equating every instance of wrong reporting with defamation was not right. Rahmat Fatima Amanullah had approached the High Court alleging that a news story carried by IBN7 network in July 2011 in connection with the allotment of Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority (BIADA) land in April 2010, had defamed her and harmed her reputation as well as that of her mother, a former Minister and other family members. But the case was dismissed by the court.
By dismissing the appeal filed against the Patna High Court order, the Supreme Court emphasized on the commitment to uphold the freedom of journalists. There could be some error or overenthusiasm in reporting an alleged scam. But the press must be allowed freedom of speech and expression to the fullest. The bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra observed that incorrect news stories about a scam does not amount to defamation.
The attempts to silence the media and journalists who expose corruption and iniquities of those in power and the heavyweights who ‘nurture’ them for convenience are rampant in the country. On one hand, there are attempts to murder, physically attack and blackmail the journalists to suppress them and on the other hand, moves are being made to push journalists and the media houses into legal tangles. Reporters Without Borders, a global non-governmental organization had recently revealed that India was the most dangerous place in the world for journalists after war zones like Syria and Iraq.
In the last two years, 142 attacks were registered against journalists. Add to it the fact that India which gained fame by achieving more transparency of governance through the introduction of Right to Information (RTI) Act kills the law and those who use it. After the law came into effect, 65 RTI activists were killed in India till last year. About 400 people were subjected to various forms of attack. Besides this physical elimination, almost all defamation cases are part of attempts to silence the media houses and journalists who shout out the truth as soon as it is out. The arrogance that the media would dance to the tunes if they are so entangled is what leads to such defamation cases.
Recent times have witnessed an increase in such a trend to retrain the fingers pointed at the corruption and expropriation of public funds on the strength of authority. However, it is a relief to have a judiciary active in the picture to protect the sanctity and prestige of the key pillar of democracy. When the back-end forces who held the reins of power from behind the scene, filed defamation petitions, the court dismissed them and gave stiff warnings, including in the recent verdict in question. The court in Bhuj, Gujarat dismissed the defamation petitions filed by leading industrialist Gautam Adani against journalists including former chief editor of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, and against the news portal 'The Wire'. The parties had aimed at inflicting this 'punishment' for unravelling the 500 crore rupee favour the Modi government handed out of the way to Adani. EPW was silenced by getting Tharkuta ousted, for having uncovering Adani's corruption. And when 'The Wire' brought to light the report that Ajay Shah, son of BJP President Amit Shah, increased his assets 16,000 times within a year, a defamation suit demanding Rs 100 crore in damages was filed against the portal. The parties in question did more or less succeed in preventing the portal from follow up stories on the issue.
Now, the Centre has been heard as preparing to move against 'The Tribune' of Punjab and its reporter with a suit for their attempt to prove the leakage of secret information from Aadhaar database. The portal was only performing a fundamental mission of the fourth estate of democracy, i.e. uncover the loopholes and glitches in a much-hyped system of the government. What the Central government has been trying to do - in its consternation of the face being distorted - is to close the eyes and ears of those who reveal the real face.
In fact the entity that is getting defamed by the excesses of the rulers and the big business lobby with their penumbra and puissance of power, is the nation itself. Showing the threat of defamation cases is a gag on the freedom of the watchdog to bark against wrongs. The Supreme Court's intervention came with a strong commentary on this trend. The reflection of this can be expected in other cases of scam. When insecure fears grow of the last flame of truth getting extinguished, such interventions by the judiciary will certainly act as prop for democracy to stand erect.