In a landmark ruling, the Madras High Court on Thursday held that public servants and constitutional functionaries cannot be allowed to misuse the law of criminal defamation by using the State as a tool to initiate defamation proceedings against adversaries.

Quashing multiple defamation proceedings initiated against media houses by the erstwhile Jayalalithaa government, Justice Abdul Quddhose said public servants and constitutional functionaries must be able to face criticism since they owed a solemn duty to the people. “The State cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy,” he observed.

The court quashed criminal defamation proceedings launched by the State government against a host of media houses and journalists, including N. Ram of The Hindu, during Jayalalithaa’s tenure as Chief Minister in 2012 and 2013.

Giving a piece of advice to public prosecutors, the judge said, they must desist from acting like a post office while filing criminal defamation cases on behalf of the State. Instead they must apply their mind independently before launching prosecution besides being fair to the court.

Listing out basic qualities expected of a public prosecutor, the judge said prosecutors must consider themselves as agents of justice, should not exhibit blind eagerness to grasp a conviction, conduct a case with utmost fairness and “remember that prosecution does not mean persecution”.

Justice Quddhose said trial courts should also apply their judicial mind to materials available on record and issue summons to the accused only if they were satisfied that the ingredients required for taking cognisance of a criminal defamation complaint against the State had been made out.

In so far as two proceedings initiated against The Hindu were concerned, the judge held that both of them fell under the category in which, on the face of it, a conclusive inference could be reached that no criminal defamation whatsoever had been made out against the newspaper.

The first case was filed with regard to a report titled ‘AIADMK activists attack Nakkheeran office,’ published on January 8, 2012. The judge said and agreed with senior counsel P.S. Raman that it was nothing but a factual news report regarding the attack.

“The role of a newspaper is only to publish news as it had happened. As a political personality/constitutional functionary, the then Chief Minister of the State could have very well refuted those allegations by a counter press statement,” the judge pointed out.

Similarly, the second case against the newspaper was with regard to publication of a statement issued in July 2012 by the then Leader of the Opposition Vijayakant accusing the Chief Minister of taking a long break from office and running the government through [media] statements.

In this case too, “there is no criminal defamation at all,” as the newspaper had only published the statement of the then Leader of the Opposition and had not made any personal imputation against the then Chief Minister, the judge held.

He also pointed out that the incumbent government had recently withdrawn the defamation proceedings initiated against Mr. Vijayakant, for having issued that statement, though he happened to be the “actual perpetrator” of the alleged crime.

On proceedings against other media houses, the judge said, some of them could be prosecuted by the aggrieved, in their individual capacity, before a Judicial Magistrate under Section 199(6) of Code of Criminal Procedure but not before a Sessions Court since no defamation against the State had been made out.

In his 152-page judgement, Justice Quddhose said the State must act like a parent of all its citizens when it came to invocation of the law of defamation. “It is normal for some parents to face vituperative insults from their children. Despite those insults, parents don’t disown their children quite easily.

“An individual or a public servant/constitutional functionary can be impulsive but not the State which will have to show utmost restraint and maturity in filing criminal defamation cases… The law cannot be misused by using the State as a tool to settle scores of a public servant/constitutional functionary over his/her adversary,” he added.

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