Access to Public Information, Commercial Speech
Derry City Council v. The Information Commissioner
Closed Expands Expression
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The High Court of Madras refused to stop publication of newspapers on the ground that they might lead to the spread of Covid-19. The petitioner had challenged the exemption given by the central government to the print media and electronic media from the beginning of the nationwide lockdown and requested an end to the circulation of newspapers because of the likelihood of the spread of coronavirus. The judges were of the opinion that mere apprehension could not be a ground to prohibit the publication of newspapers as it would amount to violation of the fundamental rights, not only of the publisher and editor but also the readers, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.
The petition was filed under article 226 of the Constitution challenging the exemption given by the central government to the print media and electronic media by virtue of notification no. 40-3/2020 dated March 24, 2020. The petition sought an interim order to restrain the print media from publishing any newspaper in India because of the likelihood of the spread of coronavirus through the circulation and supply of newspapers.
The case was presided over by Justice N. Kirubakaran of High Court of Madras. The petitioner had relied upon various research studies including “Persistence of Coronaviruses on Inanimate Surfaces and their Inactivation with Biocidal Agents” and “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1” to assert that the coronavirus was capable of spreading through paper surfaces and could survive about four days in a paper medium. Based on these studies, he contended that if the newspapers were published and supplied to the readers, then there would be a possibility of spreading the virus [p. 6].
At this point, the additional advocate general submitted that research in this area was very limited. He also argued that the possibility of a spread of the virus via newspapers would also indicate a spread of the virus through the circulation of money and stoppage of either of the two would be ludicrous. He relied on the study conducted by Dr.T. Jacob John, a professor of virology, to argue that the spread of the virus through newspapers or papers was the least probable [p. 12].
The judge accepted this argument and relied on the research studies of Dr. T. Jacob John to assert two things, firstly that the transmission of virus through paper products was the least probable and secondly that the spread of pathogen could be curbed by simply washing hands with soaps after handling the newspapers or currency notes or by ironing the newspapers before reading [p. 13]. Looking at the insufficiency of statistical data and lack of conclusive research, the judge refused to pass any direction in this matter [p. 14].
After discussing the scientific and technical aspects of this issue, the judge also dealt with the constitutional aspect. The judge began by quoting Thomas Jefferson, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have Government without newspapers, or newspapers without Government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” to emphasize the importance of newspapers and print media [p. 1]. The judge was of the opinion that “mere apprehension and the least probability cannot not be a ground to prohibit the publication of newspapers as it would amount to a violation of the fundamental rights, of not only the publisher, editor but also the readers, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India” [p. 13].
The judge claimed that vibrant media worked an asset for democratic countries like India. While highlighting the crucial role played by the media, the judge called it the fourth pillar of democracy, which had played an important role in India’s independence struggle against the British rule and during the imposition of emergency in India [1975-77]. While remembering Thiruramnath Goenka and his struggle against the pre-censorship of newspapers, the judge remarked that “the print media echoes the views of the people. It is also the watchdog of the Government, bringing out the misdeeds and corrupt practices at the highest level in the administration” [p. 2].
The judge also made reference to Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India where the Supreme Court of India had upheld the freedom of the press while stating that freedom of press is a requirement in any democratic society for its effective functioning and governments are required to respect this at all times [p. 2]. Furthermore, the judge noted that any attempt to restrict or prohibit the publication of newspapers would amount to muzzling the independence of the media [p. 3]. Therefore, the judge dismissed the petition by quoting Mahatma Gandhi, “newspapers have become more important to the average man than the scriptures” [p. 15].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The judges expanded the freedom of expression by refusing to stop publication and circulation of newspapers.
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.
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