Quashing FIR Against Journalist, J&K HC Says 'Fair and Frank Reporting' Cannot Be Curbed

The court observed that freedom of the press "cannot be put in peril" on the basis of the grounds which are unknown to law.

New Delhi: Quashing an FIR against a Srinagar-based journalist of the Times of India on Thursday, the Jammu and Kashmir high court observed that “fair and frank reporting of events” by the media cannot be curbed merely because it may have an adverse impact on the business of some class of persons.

The FIR was registered on the basis of a complaint filed by some persons associated with the tourism industry against M. Saleem Pandit. The complaint said that two news reports published in April 2018, which said that tourists in the Kashmir valley were injured when some people pelted stones at them, were false, and published with the malicious intention to disrupt the “peaceful tourist season” and to create an “atmosphere of threat” amongst citizens of India.

Reproducing the report, a single-judge bench of Justice Sanjay Dhar observed that information for the article was provided by a driver and a police official. “These documents go on to show that the news published by the petitioner was not without any basis. It may or may not have been wholly correct but the petitioner had relied upon the information of a driver and a police officer while formulating the news report,” the court said.

The court observed that freedom of the press “cannot be put in peril” on the basis of the grounds which are unknown to law. “The limitations on freedom of the press cannot extend to registration of a criminal case against a reporter, who in discharge of his duties and on the basis of information gathered by him, makes a report about certain incidents which he thought in public interest should be published,” Justice Dhar wrote in his order.

“It is immaterial that said report may have adversely affected the business of some person(s) as long as the reporter had reasonable grounds to believe that his report is true. The police in such type of cases, cannot be allowed to hound the journalists by misusing its powers,” he added.

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“The question that arises is whether a fearless and frank reporting of events/incidents in a newspaper would merely for the reason that the persons engaged in a particular business feel that their business would get adversely impacted by such news reports, attract Section 505 of Ranbir Panel Code,” the HC asked.

The answer to this question “has to be in negative” Justice Dhar noted, because reporting of events which a journalist has bona fide reason to believe to be true, can never be an offence. “Taking a contrary view would be violative of the right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India… The freedom of speech and expression, which includes within its ambit freedom of the press, is subject only to reasonable restrictions imposed by law for specific purpose,” he said.

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Credit: Karnika Kohli/The Wire

‘Continuation would amount to abuse of law’

The journalist had reasonable grounds for believing that the report he was publishing was based on facts, the court said. Justice Dhar held that an offence under section 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is not made out if the person making, publishing or circulating the report has reasonable grounds for believing that it is true and publishes it in good faith.

“The Exception to Section 505 makes it very clear that an offence under said Section is not made out if the person making, publishing or circulating the report has reasonable grounds for believing that such report is true and publishes the said report in good faith,” the order said.

The court said the case at hand “falls in category (a) quoted above because the allegations made in the First Information Report and the complaint, even if they are taken at their face value and accepted in their entirety do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out a case against the petitioner. Thus, continuance of investigation in the subject FIR would amount to abuse of process of law,” it added.

The bench also noted that the complainant had submitted before the high court that he was not interested in pursuing the prosecution of the case any further.

“Even otherwise, during the pendency of this petition, the complainant has entered into a compromise with the petitioner and he is not interested in continuing the prosecution against the petitioner. He has filed an affidavit to this effect before this Court.

“Therefore, if the investigation of the FIR is permitted to continue in the absence of statement of the complainant in support of the allegations made by him in the complaint, it would be like flogging a dead horse and no fruitful purpose will be served by continuing investigation of the case,” the court observed.