Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The High Court of Madras ruled that vicarious liability for defamation does not apply to the broadcast of an interview on television. An individual had laid a charge of criminal defamation against Kalinathi Maran – the owner of the Indian SUN TV network – in respect of an interview broadcast on SUN TV of which Maran had no knowledge. The Magistrates Court had found Maran guilty, but the High Court quashed the Magistrates Court’s ruling, holding that vicarious liability under the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 is not applicable to electronic media and that, as there was no evidence that Maran had intended to harm any individual’s reputation, he could not be guilty of defamation.
In March 2009, the Indian SUN TV network – owned by Kalinathi Maran – broadcast an interview with an individual, Mrs. Christhumani. In the interview, Christhumani made statements about another individual, Mr. Rathinaraj, which Rathinaraj believed to be defamatory. The statements related to a criminal case at the Manavalakurichi Police Station and Rathinaraj laid a charge of criminal defamation (under section 499 of the Indian Penal Code) against Maran in his capacity as the Chairman-cum-Managing Director of SUN TV arguing that the statements were untrue and defamatory (para. 1). Although Maran was responsible for making policy decisions at SUN TV he was not involved in the broadcasting and programming decisions taken by the news department (para. 2).
The Magistrate in Eraniel, Kanyakumari District found Maran guilty. Maran then applied to the High Court of Madras (Madurai Bench), under section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, seeking access to the recordings of the Magistrates Court proceedings and for the magistrate’s order to be quashed.
Judge Kalaiyaran delivered the judgment of the High Court. The central issue before the Court was whether Maran, in his capacity as the managing director of the television network, was vicariously liable for the defamation contained in an interview broadcast on the network’s news channel.
Maran argued that vicarious liability does not apply to electronic media, and that, in any event, there was no evidence to support a conviction of criminal defamation (para. 3).
Rathinaraj submitted that Maran had not provided him with the details of the person who was responsible for the broadcast of the interview despite him requesting that information and that, by allowing the broadcast of the interview with Christhumani without first ascertaining its accuracy, Maran had acted recklessly (para. 4).
Maran responded to Rathinaraj’s claim about the failure to provide details of the person responsible for the broadcast, and stated that the offices of SUN TV had moved and that Rathinaraj’s request must have been delivered to the wrong address (para. 6).
Kalaiyarasan acknowledged that although freedom of speech and expression is protected by article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution the right is not absolute and no person can speak or write recklessly and without regard to other person’s honour and reputation (para. 7).
Kalaiyarasan accepted Maran’s arguments that the vicarious liability under the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 is not applicable to electronic media (para. 8). With reference to the Indian case of Matthew v. State of Kerala 1992 (1) L.W. (Crl.) 14, the Judge held that there was no evidence that Maran was responsible for the selection of Christhumani’s interview and so the requirement under section 199 that there be intention to harm the reputation of a person had not been met (para. 9).
Accordingly, Kalaiyarasan held that the Magistrate had erred in finding Maran guilty as there was no statutory provision for vicarious liability and no evidence that he intended to defame Rathinaraj or even knew about the broadcast of the interview (para. 10). Accordingly, the Judge quashed the proceedings before the Magistrates Court.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision expands expression by not holding a managing director vicariously liable for the broadcast of an allegedly defamatory interview when the director had no intention to defame or knowledge of the interview.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The decision establishes a binding precedent within its jurisdiction which is the State of Tamil Nadu and is persuasive to all other High Courts of India.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.