Is the Printer and Publisher of a daily – for that matter of any publication—necessarily a party in a defamation case? Especially when only the editor is cited as an accused in a defamation complaint? The issue rose recently when a Punjab Kesari reporter was aggrieved by a news item published in Dainik Bhaskar, along with his photograph. The appellant, Dal Singh Roherian alleged that the news item was published with a mala fide intention to harm his reputation and lower his image in the eyes of the public. He therefore filed his complaint before a Judicial Magistrate who understandably issued summons to three respondents, including the printer and publisher of Dainik Bhaskar.
At this point the publisher filed a revision petition and the Punjab and Haryana High Court set aside the order of Aummons issued by the lower court, insofar as he was concerned. The printer and publisher is strictly a technician, nothing more, nothing less. He is not told – nor can he be aware – what a publication contains. He does not sit with the editorial department to scrutinise every line and every paragraph in every issue and neither does he know what picture is included to illustrate the text and what caption it carries. In such circumstances, can the poor man be held responsible for some allegedly defamatory items carried in the newspaper he prints? With all due respect to the Court one must argue that the Printer and Publisher should not be drawn into any controversy. According to The Hindu (18 March), a Bench of Justice P Sathasivam and J Chelameswar in a brief order had raised what it considered was “an important question”. It is certainly an important question and surely, the entire printing and publication section of the media will look forward to the judgement with bated breath.
Meanwhile, another development has taken place. Should the Court frame guidelines for media for reporting sub-judice matters? The Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA) seems opposed to any such move, claiming that such a measure could be undertaken only by Parliament. The issue was raised in the Supreme Court by Senior Advocate Ram Jethmalani, appearing for the BEA. According to Deccan Herald (18 April) Jethmalani said that the Apex Court had taken “enormous liberty with the Constitution of India”, Considering that the judiciary “need statutory powers to take any or dilute the provision of the life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21”. Jethmalani said “backing of the law is necessary to make any guidelines and if the freedom of speech is restricted in any manner, it requires Parliamentary legislation”. As reported, Jethmalani said that the apex court could invite suggestions from different quarters and send its recommendations on the issue of guidelines to the Parliament which could be persuaded to pass the guidelines as legislation. Jethmalani is quoted to have further said that Article 21 of the Constitution has been held to be a guarantee of fair trial, while Section 482 of the Criminal Procedure Code gave enough powers to the court to ensure fair trial of an accused. Jethmalani also contended that an order to “further publication and pre-publication restriction” for media in the form of guidelines would be ultra vires.
According to the report, during the hearing, the Bench raised the question as to what should be the outcome when instances came before the court where the presumption of innocence of accused was infringed or where the media went on to analyse the evidence even prior to the court doing it. To that the advocate is reported to have said that the court should exercise its inherent power under Article 142 of the Constitution, not for framing guidelines but for disposing of pending matters. The media these days seems to be under constant scrutiny. It had better be, for things are going wonky. In late February, Justice Markandey Katju addressing a Patna University audience said he has been told that “most of the journalists in Bihar can’t write anything against the State (and) those who dare to write against it is either transferred or runs the risk of losing his job”. Katju said that he had been informed that government advertisements were also cancelled if adverse news against the government, ministers or officials are published. Deccan Herald (1 March) quoted him as saying: “This kind of gag on media is a violation of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution”.
To make its point, the Deccan Herald said: “Such was the fear psychosis among the owners/managements of newspaper dailies (in Patna) that at least two vernacular dailies did not carry the report about Katju’s remarks against the Nitish regime”. What is happening seems to be happening in Kolkata as well under Mamata Bannerjee’s regime. The Asian Age (16 April) came down heavily against her “growing dictatorship”. The paper called her “a rabble-rousing small-timer… who “finds herself clueless when sitting on the Treasury Benches”. The paper said that “arrests are being made on trumped-up charges and a hapless university teacher is booked for outraging the modesty of a woman under the Information Technology Act for the sin of emailing an amaeteur political cartoon”. Mamata is showing herself as arrogant, hateful and totally lacking a sense of humour.
Her government’s new rule restricting English and Bengali dailies at over 3,000 state-sponsored and aided libraries has led to a furore among the Bengali intelligentsia. The Statesman and Ganashakti will henceforth disappear from state-aided libraries showing not only pettiness but what Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, writing in The Free Press Journal (7 April) described as “small thinking by small people at the top”. Incidentally, the strongest criticism of The Indian Express which gave a full page to armed forces movement recently comes from a new weekly, Deshbhakti Andolan (11 April) which said that the Express “had struck a new low”, that the ‘great editor’ (Shekhar Gupta) has “made a fool of himself”, that the story “is very defamatory” of Gen V.K. Singh who “deserves a sincere apology”. But The Free Press Journal (7 April) said that “in a strong vibrant democracy like India where the media is free, there should be no shackles on covering defence issues”. Within the media differences are strong on the Express exposure.