Punjab and Haryana High Court takes a stand for journalists

Courts must safeguard interests of courageous journalists – Justice Anoop Chitkara

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The court’s observations came on a petition filed by an editor of The Indian Express who sought quashing of a criminal defamation case by a former Haryana IPS Officer based on a news article filed in 2008

In a significant observation underlining the importance of journalism in a democratic state, the Punjab and Haryana High Court on 4 January 2024 said all courts must be more vigilant and proactive while safeguarding the interests of courageous journalists who face various hurdles while uncovering the truth.

“Journalism is civilization’s mirror, and investigative journalism its X-ray,” Justice Anoop Chitkara of the Punjab and Haryana High Court said while dismissing summons and proceedings in a criminal defamation case filed against a former resident editor and a deputy resident editor of the Indian Express.

“Journalism is the fourth pillar of any democracy. As a journalist, the reporter’s sacrosanct duty is loyalty towards the citizenry. They serve as independent monitors of power, reporting information for public good and safety, addressing any problems or lacunae in the public system for its effective functioning and immediate redressal,” the court said in the order seen by Indian Printer and Publisher.

In the fearless pursuit of their duties to uncover the truth and report such facts to the masses through media, these brave journalists do face various hurdles such as pressure from influential parties, groups, or government agencies, etc, the court said. “To ensure honest and correct reporting of actual events, such journalists require the protection of courts, especially constitutional courts, to enable them to publish news without fear of harmful consequences. Thus, all courts must be more vigilant and proactive while safeguarding the interests of such courageous humans.”

The court’s observations came on a petition filed by an editor of The Indian Express who sought quashing of a criminal defamation case by a former Haryana IPS Officer based on a news article filed in 2008, alleging bribery and police protection recommendations. The petitioners had moved the HC after the Sessions Court of Gurugram refused to dismiss the summons issued in the case.

Justice Chitkara disposed of the petitions filed by Manraj Grewal (then deputy news editor – The Indian Express, Chandigarh), Vipin Pubby (then editor – The Indian Express, Chandigarh), Swatantra Saxena (former special correspondent, Dainik Tribune) and Barjinder Singh Hamdard (managing editor of Daily Ajit and Ajit Samachar), The Indian Express reported.

The court, after perusing the news published in The Indian Express Chandigarh edition, said a bare reading points to investigative journalism where the complainant’s version was also reflected. “The complainant nowhere states that his version was incorrectly mentioned or that the journalist had withheld its material aspects.”

Ethical standards for reasonableness and impartiality are key to journalism

According to Justice Chitkara, before the journalist wrote the news, he took the complainant’s view into account and mentioned it in the news item, which shows that he adhered to the ethical standards of reasonableness and impartiality, which are key to journalism. “One of the foundational responsibilities of a journalist is to seek the truth and report it with caution while not distorting or manipulating any facts. The respective journalist cross-checked the information, ascertained it, and explicitly mentioned the complainant’s version to rule out whether the facts were true or mere concocted lies or rumors.”

This cross-checking and accurate reporting of the complainant’s version demonstrates the journalist’s sense of responsibility and decency while prudently discharging his duties, the court observed. “What else can we expect from a journalist? The reporting itself proves by a preponderance of probability of due care and caution, and there is no reason why it should not be accepted as the discharging of their burden by the petitioner under S. 106 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872,” Justice Chitkara said.

“A complete reading of the news, which contained the complainant’s rebuttal, his version, the version of the police, can be stated to have been published in good faith and discharge of their functions in a democracy, and if restrictions are created to publish such news, it would be just like killing a mockingbird,” the court said.

The Indian Express reporter had explicitly mentioned the complainant’s denial and the corroboration of such denial from the SP Panchkula, the court said, adding a wholesome and complete reading by an ordinary prudent person would neither discredit nor lower the complainant’s image. However, if the witnesses read this news with colored spectacles, the report cannot be made liable for such misunderstanding, the court said.

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