Global Freedom of Expression

M. Zainul v. The Chief Secretary

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    April 22, 2020
  • Outcome
    Motion Denied
  • Case Number
    W.P. No. 7491 of 2020
  • Region & Country
    India, Asia and Asia Pacific
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law
  • Themes
    Licensing / Media Regulation
  • Tags
    Fake News, COVID-19

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The High Court of Madras refused to pass any order directing the government to frame guidelines for visual media regulation to address the dissemination of false news. The public interest litigation was filed by an Advocate, arguing that there was a lack of regulation for visual media and that the spread of false news in both visual and print media during COVID-19 had led to stigmatization of a particular religious community. The judges were of the opinion that a decision regarding regulation of visual media was a matter for the government to explore through statutory provisions, and not the judiciary. Individuals could seek remedy by lodging complaints with the Press council of India and the News Broad Casting Standards Authority, or through criminal prosecution.


The petition was filed by an Advocate requesting the issue of guidelines from the High Court to print and visual media with regard to the cautious and responsible presentation of news involving reports about the COVID-19 pandemic and maintaining confidentiality by not revealing the names of people infected by the COVID-19.

The petitioner also sought a direction that the Chief Secretary, Tamil Nadu Government (“respondent”)  take strict legal action against persons spreading rumors and false information regarding COVID-19 in social media.

The petitioner contended that repeated news items were being published in print as well as visual media targeting Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni Islamic missionary movement, and claiming that the Muslim community was infected by COVID-19. Further, the petitioner alleged that individuals’ names were being published without their consent and without any authority as a result of which they were being stigmatized.

Decision Overview

The two judge bench was presided over by Justice M. Sathyanarayanan and Justice M. Nirmal Kumar. The central issue for consideration was whether the Court could issue directions to the Government to frame necessary statutory provisions for the regulation of visual media.

The petitioner contended that dissemination of false information by print media and visual media had led to enmity towards the persons of a particular religion [p. 3]. He argued that although there were Telecom Regulatory Authority Rules (TRAI) and the Press & Registration of Books Act, 1867, there was a lack of regulation for visual media and that they were governed only by self regulation [p. 7].

The Court noted the fact that visual media did not come under the ambit of any of the existing statutes. However, the judges refused to pass any direction and stated that it was for the Government of India to look into the matter and not the Court. [p. 7].

The Court also relied on the case of Sahara India Real Estate v. Securities & Exchange Board of India [(2012) 6 ML J 772], where the Supreme Court had dealt with the same question – whether the Court could frame guidelines for the visual media. In that case as well, the Supreme Court of India had declined to make orders as to the framing of guidelines for the visual media [p. 9].

Therefore, the judges were of the opinion that the Court could not issue directions to pass a law in any particular manner. It was for the government to look into the aspect with regard to the framing of necessary statutory provisions for visual media [p. 11].

The Court also referred to Supreme Court jurisprudence, in particular concerning freedom of speech and expression which includes freedom of the press and which is guaranteed under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. It pointed put that the only legitimate restrictions on freedom of speech and expression were those in Article 19(2) namely, the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. It said that Parliament had not seen fit to include a clause enabling the imposition of reasonable restrictions in the public interest.

Lastly, the Court made it clear that if any individual was aggrieved on account of false information, they were entitled to pursue a remedy via the common law or criminal prosecution [p. 12].  Meanwhile, it was open to the petitioner to approach the Press Council of India and News Broadcasting Standards Authority [p. 7].

Decision Direction

Quick Info

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

Mixed Outcome

The High Court of Madras expanded expression by refusing to pass any direction on the regulation of visual media, finding the responsibility was on the Government and Press Councils to explore appropriate regulations. However, the only remedy the Court suggested to counter the spreading of harmful misinformation, was for individuals to bring actions via the common law or criminal prosecution, an often lengthy and costly process that comes too late to address the immediate issue.


Global Perspective

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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, Yashwant Sinha v. Central Bureau of Investigation, Review Petition (Criminal) No. 46 of 2019 in Writ Petition (criminal) 298 of 2018 Petition
  • India, Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras, (1950 SCR 594)
  • India, BrijBhushan v State of Delhi AIR 1950 SC 124
  • India, Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Private Ltd. v. Union of India, (1985) 2 S.C.R. 287
  • India, Sahara India Real Estate Corporation Limited v. Securities and Exchange Board of India (2012), 10 SCC 603.
  • India, Const. Article 19(1)(a)
  • India, Const. Article 19(2)

Case Significance

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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.

Official Case Documents

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