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Grievances Redressal Officer, Economic Times Internet Ltd. v. V.V. Mineral Pvt. Ltd.

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    May 5, 2020
  • Outcome
    Judgment in Favor of Defendant, Law or Action Overturned or Deemed Unconstitutional
  • Case Number
    Crl OP(MD) No.9067 of 2016 and Crl MP(MD)Nos. 4493 & 4494 of 2016
  • Region & Country
    India, Asia and Asia Pacific
  • Judicial Body
    Constitutional Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Defamation / Reputation
  • Tags
    Defamation, Public Interest, Media/Press

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Madras High Court quashed criminal defamation proceedings against the journalist Sandhya Ravishankar and other related petitioners concerning a 2015 article discussing an ongoing public interest litigation in the Madras High Court. Ravishankar had published an article in the Economic Times Magazine titled ‘Scam on the Shores’ about alleged illegal mining of atomic minerals along the coastline of Tamil Nadu. The Court held that Ravishankar was entitled to the Public Interest and Good Faith Exceptions to criminal defamation under the Indian Penal Code as the article pertained to an ongoing litigation on a matter of public interest and since Ravishankar had written the article in good faith. Further, the Court said that in such cases where a summary examination is enough to show that the case could fall under one of the exceptions to criminal defamation,  a trial is unnecessary and the higher judiciary must be proactive to protect journalists when the freedom of the press is at stake.


Facts

Mrs. Sandhya Ravishankar, Petitioner No. 3, was a journalist and author of an allegedly defamatory article published in the Economic Times Magazine. Petitioner No. 1 and Petitioner No. 2 were the Grievance Redressal Officer and Editor of the Economic Times Magazine respectively. Petitioner No. 4, Mr. Prem Ravishankar, was the husband of Ms. Sandhya Ravishankar. The Respondent, M/s V.V. M/s V.V. Minerals Pvt. Ltd. was a large Indian corporation engaged in mining natural resources.

Ms. Sandhya Ravishankar authored an article for the Economic Times Magazine titled ‘Scam on the Shores’ for its February 1 – 7, 2015 issue discussing an ongoing public interest litigation (PIL) in the Madras High Court (W.P No.1592 of 2015). In this ongoing PIL, the Respondent firm, M/s V.V. Minerals Pvt. Ltd. was accused of carrying out illegal sand mining of atomic mineral monazite in Tamil Nadu and exposing local villagers to serious health hazards. The article contained some minor errors which the publication later corrected. On February 1, 2015, M/s V.V. Minerals sent a legal notice contravening the allegations in the article and demanded a retraction of the offending piece from the Magazine and an apology. On February 9, 2015, V.V. Minerals sent another legal notice alleging that Mrs. Sandhya Ravishankar had written the article with a mala fide intention as her husband, Mr. Prem Ravishankar had in the past unsuccessfully applied for employment in a news channel partially owned by V.V. Minerals.

On  March 24, 2015, V.V. Minerals lodged a private complaint before the Judicial Magistrate, Thirunelveli (C.C No.37 of 2016) against the Petitioners under Section 500 read with Section 109 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 for committing the offense of criminal defamation. Aggrieved by these proceedings, the Petitioners approached the Madras High Court in the present case to quash the defamation proceedings before the Judicial Magistrate.

The Petitioners contended that their case fell within Exception 3 of Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code that provided for an exception from liability to speech made in the Public Interest and in Good Faith exceptions. The Petitioners contended that the article was based on ongoing proceedings in the PIL (W.P No.1592 of 2015) before the Madras High Court and pertained to matters of high interest to the public.

V.V. Minerals contended that the offending article had caused irreparable damage to its reputation and was actuated by malice due to the unsuccessful job-application of  Ravishankar’s husband to a news channel partially owned by V.V. Minerals. V.V. Minerals argued that even if the High Court were to accept that the Petitioners’ case falls within the exceptions of Public Interest and Good Faith under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, such a defense must be considered during trial before the Judicial Magistrate and cannot be a ground to quash the case in proceedings before the High Court.


Decision Overview

The judgment was delivered by Justice G.R. Swaminathan, as a single-bench judgment of the Madras High Court.

The primary question before the Court was whether to let criminal defamation proceedings continue before the Judicial Magistrate, Thirunelveli (C.C No.37 of 2016), or whether to quash the proceedings by giving the Petitioners the benefit of the Public Interest and Good Faith Exception under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code.

The Petitioners contended that their case fell within Exception 3 of Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code that provided for an exception from liability to speech made in the Public Interest and in Good Faith exceptions. The Petitioners contended that the article was based on ongoing proceedings in the PIL (W.P No.1592 of 2015) before the Madras High Court and pertained to matters of high interest to the public.

V.V. Minerals contended that the offending article had caused irreparable damage to its reputation and was actuated by malice due to the unsuccessful job-application of Ms. Sandhya Ravishankar’s husband to a news channel partially owned by V.V. Minerals. V.V. Minerals argued that even if the High Court were to accept that the Petitioners’ case falls within the exceptions of Public Interest and Good Faith under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, such a defense must be considered during trial before the Judicial Magistrate and cannot be a ground to quash the case in proceedings before the High Court.

The Court ruled in favor of the Petitioners and quashed the defamation proceedings initiated by the Respondent before the Judicial Magistrate, Thirunelveli. It quashed the proceedings against Petitioner No. 1, Grievance Redressal Officer, Economic Times Magazine and Petitioner No. 2, Editor Economic Times on the ground that there was no allegation against them and merely because they did not redress the Respondent’s grievance when they were served the legal notice by the Respondent did not make them criminally liable for the offense of defamation. The Court quashed the proceedings before Petitioner No. 4, Mr. Prem Ravishankar on the ground that Ms. Sandhya Ravishankar was an independent journalist and assuming that she wrote the article completely at the behest of her husband would be undermining her agency, autonomy, and independent personality. The Court noted that while it was true that Mr. Prem Ravishankar had unsuccessfully applied for a job at a news channel partially owned by V.V. Minerals, there was no correspondence between Mrs. Sandhya Ravishankar and V.V. Minerals on the matter and thus there was no material before the Court to show the mala fide intention of Mrs. Sandhya Ravishankar.

The Court quashed the proceedings against Mrs. Sandhya Ravishankar relying upon the doctrine of ‘actual malice’ laid down in New York Times v. Sullivan ((New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254.)). In quashing the proceedings, the Court settled two issues of law: first, whether the principle of actual malice could be read into the law on criminal defamation. Two, whether the benefit of the Exceptions to Criminal Defamation in Section 499 could only be granted at trial or whether a High Court could quash proceedings at a preliminary stage based on these exceptions.

The actual malice doctrine says that civil liability can be imposed for speech made on national interest issues only if the maker of the statement either knew the statements to be false or published them with reckless disregard for its truth. The actual malice doctrine had been read into Indian Law on Civil Defamation by the Indian Supreme Court in Rajagopal vs. State of Tamil Nadu ((Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1994) 6 SCC 632.)) and later by the Madras High Court in Rajagopal vs. Jayalalitha ((Rajagopal v. Jayalalitha (AIR 2006 Mad 312).)). The Rajagopal vs. Jayalalitha judgment ((Rajagopal v. Jayalalitha (AIR 2006 Mad 312).)), had held that for a member of the press to show that they did not make an allegedly defamatory statement with reckless disregard for the truth, it would be enough for them to prove that they acted after a reasonable verification of the facts.

In the present case, Justice G.R. Swaminathan transposed the actual malice principle into criminal defamation by holding that the principle must necessarily be read into the Exceptions to Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code. The Court held that where speech pertained to questions of public interest, Exception 3 of Section 499 could be safely understood to mean that the media ought to be relieved from criminal prosecution if they made speech in good faith.

The Court rejected the Respondent’s argument that the benefit of the Exception should only be granted during Trial. The Court said that if the petitioners in a summary examination before a High Court can bring their case within one of the Exceptions of Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, then they must not have to undergo the ordeal of a trial. The Court said that in such cases where a summary examination is enough to show that the case would fall under an Exception under Section 499,  the higher judiciary must be proactive and protect journalists when the freedom of the press is at stake.

Thus, the Court held that Mrs. Sandhya Ravishankar should get the benefit of the Third Exception of Section 499 as her article pertained to an ongoing PIL (W.P No.1592 of 2015) and in that case, the Madras High Court had taken cognizance of the matter and directed authorities to intensify patrolling in the area where the illegal mining was supposedly being carried out. As proceedings in the PIL were underway, it was a clear indicator of the interest of the public interest in the issue. The Court held that Mrs. Sandhya Ravishankar’s good faith was evident as she had reached out to V.V. Minerals for their response on the issue and she had also issued a clarification for the minor errors in the piece.

In conclusion, the Court quashed the criminal defamation proceedings against the Petitioners and said that the institution of the criminal defamation proceedings was an abuse of the process of the court.

 


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

In this progressive judgment, the Court expanded expression in two ways: first, it transposed the actual malice doctrine into the legal framework for criminal defamation. Second, it held that the higher judiciary must quash defamation proceedings at an early stage if, by a summary examination, the Court feels that the case would fall under one of the exceptions to criminal defamation under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code. This implies that journalists and publishers do not have to stand the ordeal of a trial if their expression, by a summary examination appears to fall under one of the Exceptions to criminal defamation. This would have positive implications for free speech as journalists and media houses would now not need to spend large amounts of time and resources battling criminal defamation proceedings in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • India, Penal Code, sec. 499
  • India, Indian Penal Code, Section 500
  • India, Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1994) 6 SCC 632
  • India, Rajagopal v. Jayalalitha (2006), AIR 2006 Mad 312.
  • India, Petronet v. Indian Petro Group, [2009] 95 SCL 207(Delhi)
  • India, Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India (2016)
  • India, Khushwant Singh v. Maneka Gandhi, AIR 2002 Del 58
  • India, Yashwant Sinha v. Central Bureau of Investigation, Review Petition (Criminal) No. 46 of 2019 in Writ Petition (criminal) 298 of 2018 Petition
  • India, Jawaharlal Darda v. Manoharrao Kapsikar (1998), 4 SCC 112.

Other national standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

As a judgment of the Madras High Court, the judgment is binding on all lower courts and authorities in the state of Tamil Nadu.

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