Punjab and Haryana High Court Upholds Press Freedom in Defamation Case

The Punjab and Haryana High Court recently made a significant decision, dismissing defamation proceedings against certain newspaper editors and journalists, including the Resident Editor of the Indian Express. In the case titled “Vipin Pubby v. State of Haryana and another,” retired Indian Police Service (IPS) Officer Param Vir Rathee initiated defamation charges.

Justice Anoop Chitkara of the High Court determined that the Gurgaon court’s summons against the journalists lacked merit. The individuals involved, including the current Indian Express Resident Editor Manraj Grewal, former Resident Editor Vipin Pubby, and others associated with Daily Ajit (Punjabi) and Ajit Samachar (Hindi), had the defamation proceedings quashed.

Justice Chitkara emphasized that the newspapers and reporters had not committed any offense by publishing a news report about Rathee. The court stressed the importance of protecting journalists’ interests, highlighting their crucial role as independent monitors of power, reporting information for the public good and safety.

The judge underscored news reporters’ duty to the citizenry, serving as vital contributors to a democracy’s functioning. Facing challenges and pressures from influential parties or government agencies, journalists require proactive safeguarding by constitutional courts.

Rathee had filed a defamation complaint in 2008, naming 18 major newspapers and objecting to a news item published in The Indian Express titled “Accused says he bribed ADGP, sought police protection.” The news reported that an accused confessed to the Central Bureau of Investigation that Rathee recommended police protection after taking a bribe.

Upon careful consideration, the High Court opined that The Indian Express had engaged in investigative journalism, presenting Rathee’s version alongside other perspectives. Rathee did not contest the accuracy of his version in the news item, nor did he claim ill intentions by the journalists.

The court acknowledged the journalist’s adherence to ethical standards, displaying reasonableness and impartiality by including Rathee’s viewpoint before crafting the news report. The reporter explicitly mentioned Rathee’s denial and the police’s corroboration, demonstrating responsibility and decency in reporting.

Consequently, the court found The Indian Express, its reporter, and editors entitled to the exceptions under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) related to defamation. It emphasized that the newspaper acted within the constitutional parameters of freedom of speech and expression.

In the case of Ajit newspaper’s managing editor Barjinder Singh Hamdard, the court quashed the summons, noting that Rathee failed to satisfy fundamental requirements under Section 499 IPC. The court found no evidence that the news published in Ajit Samachar reached the public and recognized the correct reporting of statements made by individuals involved.

In conclusion, the Punjab and Haryana High Court’s decision is a significant affirmation of journalists’ role in a democracy and the importance of safeguarding their interests. The court’s emphasis on proactive protection for journalists highlights the challenges they face in reporting the truth and reinforces the constitutional principles of freedom of speech and expression. This ruling sets a precedent for responsible journalism, balancing the right to information with the protection of individuals’ reputations.