Global Freedom of Expression

Sekaram v. State of Tamil Nadu

In Progress Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    January 10, 2020
  • Case Number
    Writ Petition No. 32091 of 2019
  • Region & Country
    India, Asia and Asia Pacific
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Licensing / Media Regulation
  • Tags
    Journalism, Fake News, False News, Journalist Accreditation

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The High Court of Madras observed that there were many bogus journalists who claimed to be genuine members of the press by registering their magazines/newspapers with the authorities, publishing only a handful of copies and then using their bogus press credentials for criminal activities such as blackmail.  This observation was triggered by public interest litigation (PIL) brought by Mr. S. Sekaram who claimed to have been the editor of a Tamil fortnightly magazine for the last ten years as well as being a freelance journalist. He was seeking a police inquiry into inflated investigation figures allegedly submitted by the Inspector General of Police. In the course of its reasoning the Court suggested the presence of some mechanism to identify and check the bogus journalists, impose certain parameters such as a minimum circulation for magazines and newspapers and verify the credentials of the parties in detail before issuing press identity cards.


Facts

The present public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by Mr. S. Sekaram (“petitioner”) seeking a direction for the Director General of Police (DGP), Tamil Nadu (“respondent”) to investigate a police enquiry into inflated investigation figures allegedly submitted by former Inspector General of Police A.G. Ponn Manickavel in the High Court to get himself appointed as Special Officer of Idol Wing CID for a period of one year after his retirement. The retired IGP, in turn, questioned the credentials of the litigant.

While the focus of the PIL was initially to look into the allegations leveled against the Inspector General of Police for providing false information, it shifted to the issue of fake journalists and press reporters when the IGP questioned the credentials of Mr. S. Sekaram. The Government Advocate argued that the present PIL was mala fide; that the petitioner was not a member of the press; and his magazine “Maneeda Manam” was not known to anybody. She also submitted  that the petitioner had failed to state the circulation figures for his magazine.

Here, it is important to note that if a PIL is filed with malafide intention, without any public interest, or to vindicate personal vengeance or to resort to blackmailing, then it is liable to get dismissed. In the instant case, when the respondent State argued that the PIL was filed with malafide motive since the Sekaram was not a press reporter, the Court decided to look into the matter of fake press reporters as well. During the course of hearing, the Court issued directions to identify bogus media personnel.


Decision Overview

The case was presided over by Justices N. Kirubakaran and P. Velmurugan of the High Court of Madras. The main issue for consideration was related to the existence of bogus journalists and media personnel.

The first issue raised by the respondent was regarding the bona fide nature of the PIL and the inaccurate credentials of the petitioner. The petitioner had claimed to be a press reporter. When asked by the Court to disclose his credentials and his membership in the press club, the petitioner stated that he had been a freelance reporter for over 10 years and was also the editor of Maanida Manam, a fortnightly magazine. He said he had held a valid Government press pass continuously for several years and produced six original identity cards said to be issued by the Information and Public Relationship Department. However the Court was surprised to observe that one of the cards did not relate to the petitioner, but was the original identity card of Mr. Khadar Basha, Deputy Superintendent of Police, District Crime Branch, Thiruvarur who had been suspended from service for his alleged involvement in the Idol theft case. This raised suspicion in the minds of the judges with regard to the bona fides of the petitioner in approaching the Court and filing the instant PIL petition [p. 6]. The Court further suspected the credentials of the petitioner as a press reporter and decided to delve deeper into the issue of bogus reporters. With this in mind the Court suo moto impleaded the Secretary, Information and Public Relationship Department, the Press Council of India, the Madras Union of Journalists, the Madras Reporters Guild and the Chennai Press Club in the proceedings [p. 7].

The judges observed that it was clear from press reports that many people were claiming to be press reporters and had been committing crimes and blackmailing business people and Government officials. In one such case, based on a complaint preferred by the “Daily Thanthi” management, a bogus press person who collected money from a school management claiming to be a reporter of “Daily Thanthi” was arrested. “This is only the tip of the iceberg and there are many bogus press personnel claiming to be reporters of popular and established newspapers and collecting money from organizers of meetings/seminars bringing disrepute to those popular newspapers/magazines. It is also stated that the genuine press reporters are sidelined and these bogus reporters have taken over and dominate all the press associations. They are allegedly reporting news on payment [p. 7].”

Looking at the gravity of this issue, the judges suggested that there should be a threshold such as a minimum circulation for magazines or newspapers to qualify as genuine members of the press and/or the credentials of the parties should be verified in detail before the issue of identity cards, since many people who have a  criminal background also claimed to be members of the press and indulged in criminal activities using their bogus press credentials as a shield. The judges observed that the image of the press was damaged because of the activities of the fake press reporters and therefore, noted the need for the “system to be cleaned so that the interest of genuine journalists/press personnel could be protected” [p. 7].

While noting the need to check bogus journalists, the Court also observed that “many people are claiming to be press people by registering their magazines/newspapers with the authorities and printing only a handful of copies, writing negative stories and making allegations about officials and politicians and thereafter blackmailing them. This has become a regular feature and therefore, some mechanism to check the bogus journalists/press reporters must be put in place” [p. 2].

The Court directed the four official authorities and five newly impleaded authorities including the Press Council of India, Madras Union of Journalists, Madras Reporters Guild, Chennai Press Club to answer the following queries [p. 9]:

  1. How many newspapers or magazines including weekly as well as fortnightly have been registered with the Government of Tamil Nadu over the past 10 years?
  2. How many persons are issued with press identity cards by the Government?
  3. Are cases registered against people who are claiming to be press reporters for indulging in criminal activities? If it is so, how many cases have been filed and what is the present stage of those cases?
  4. Whether people claiming to be reporters are indulging in blackmailing and conducting Katta Panchayat [kangaroo courts]?
  5. Is there any Government scheme for the benefit of press people in case of any accidents or untimely death?
  6. Who are all the members of the accreditation committee and the media organization they belong to and the circulation or viewership of the said media organizations?
  7. On what basis are the members of the accreditation committee selected?
  8. Why doesn’t the State Government consider establishing a statutory body like the Press Council of India to take action against the errant members?
  9. Where is the list of all journalist associations registered in Tamil Nadu?
  10. How many reporters from the newspapers/magazines registered with the Registrar of the Newspapers for India and Audit Bureau of Circulation are enrolled as members of each Association viz., Madras Union of Journalists, The Madras Reporters Guild and Chennai Press Club.
  11. Who are all the office bearers of these associations viz., Madras Union of Journalists, The Madras Reporters Guild and Chennai Press Club and the newspapers/magazines they belong to?
  12. Who are all the members of all the three associations viz., Madras Union of Journalists, The Madras Reporters Guild and Chennai Press Club? When was the last membership enrolment conducted for all the three associations viz., Madras Union of Journalists, The Madras Reporters Guild and Chennai Press Club?
  13. When was the last election conducted to all the three associations viz., Madras Union of Journalists, The Madras Reporters Guild and Chennai Press Club?
  14. Have bogus members of the press entered into the associations and do they outnumber the genuine press people? What are all the acts done by the bogus press personnel?

The case is still pending in the Court as the judges await response from the official authorities regarding the above mentioned questions. According to the official website of the Madras High Court, the last hearing dates back to February 24, 2020, however the matter was adjourned. After the Court receives reply from the authorities, it will decide what further steps should be taken to scrutinize the genuineness of the reporters.


Decision Direction

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

Mixed Outcome

The direction of this case cannot be determined at this point. The Court, while observing several instances where people claiming to be press reporters have been committing crimes and blackmailing people, suggested that certain mechanisms are required to identify these bogus press reporters and protect the interest of genuine media personnel. But here it is necessary to note that under the garb of weeding out “fake journalists”, mechanisms such as tougher press accreditation are often used to create problems and harass the same genuine journalists they were intended to protect in the first place. It would be interesting to see what recommendations are given by the Court to deal with the issue of bogus reporters and whether these recommendations are implemented in a proper manner without creating hurdles in the way of investigative journalism.

Global Perspective

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

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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