Madras HC Dismisses Jayalalithaa Govt's 2012 Criminal Complaints Against Journalists

Among editors against whom criminal defamation complaints had been filed were N. Ram, Nakeeran Gopal and Siddharth Varadarajan.

New Delhi: Dismissing eight-year-old criminal complaints filed against a slew of editors by the Tamil Nadu government, Madras high court on Wednesday said that the state should have higher tolerance for criticism and should not be “impulsive” in its compulsion to launch prosecution.

According to LiveLaw, the complaints were lodged in 2012 alleging “criminal defamation against states” by then chief minister J. Jayalalithaa against editors like N. Ram, former editor in chief of The Hindu , Nakeeran Gopal and Siddharth Varadarajan, then editor of The Hindu.

Giving an order in favour of the writ petitions challenging the constitutionality of the complaints, the order said that the core ingredient required for prosecution through a public prosecutor under Section 199(2) of the CrPC, namely “Defamation of the State,” is missing.

The public prosecutor had filed the complaints before the sessions courts under the above section of the CrPC, which laid the special procedure for offences of defamation against state and constitutional functionaries.

“The State should not be impulsive like an ordinary citizen in defamation matters and invoke Section 199(2) Cr.P.C. to throttle democracy,” noted Justice Abdul Quddhose in his judgment.

He wrote that criminal defamation law cannot be misused as a tool to “settle scores”. “A public servant/constitutional functionary must be able to face criticism. As public servants/constitutional functionaries, they owe a solemn duty to the people. The state cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy,” stated the order.

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Justice Quddhose said that the attitude of the state towards defamation “must also be the same as their tolerance level towards its citizens in so far as defamation is concerned must be akin to that of parents”.

Describing the state as akin to a “parent” for all citizens, the order staid that while it is normal for some parents to face “vituperative insults” form their children, the mother and father don’t easily disown them.

The court noted that from the year 2012 to 2020, a total of 226 cases under Section 199(2) of CrPC were pending in various sessions courts, irrespective of political party in power in Tamil Nadu. “Due to the mechanical filing of complaints under section 199(2) Cr.P.C., the Sessions Courts are sometimes clogged with those matters due to reckless filing without application of mind and sometimes vindictively. This menace will have to be curbed and nipped in the bud”.

The order stated that sessions judges should exercise higher level of scrutiny with respect to criminal defamation complaints by the state.

Justice Quddhose also said that the sessions will have “to independently apply its judicial mind and assess the materials and only if it is satisfied take cognisance of the complaint”.

On the role of the public prosecutor, the court said that a senior government lawyer should not be to act like a “post office”. 

“The role is very special because in those matters, the public prosecutor plays a dual role both as a person representing the public servant/constitutional functionary as well as a public prosecutor. Therefore, the cardinal principles mentioned supra will have to be strictly adhered to by the public prosecutor…”.

The judge also called on the media to exercise self-regulation. “The newspaper is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within”.