The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court observed in a recent judgement that “journalists do not enjoy special privileges or greater freedom than others to make imputations or allegations that are sufficient to ruin the reputation of a citizen”.
“They (journalists) are in no better position than any other person. The truth of an allegation does not permit a justification under the First exception unless it is proved to be in public good. The question whether or not it was for public good is a question of fact which needs to be proved like any other relevant fact,” observed the Bench while dismissing a petition filed by the chairman, chief editor and two journalists of an Aurangabad-based newspaper, “Lokmat”, seeking to quash a defamation case pending against them in respect of a news item published by them.
A social worker named Vijay Bapu Patil had filed a defamation complaint before the Jalgaon CJM about a news report published on July 11, 2008, alleging that his reputation was lowered stating that he was taken to the police station after the publication linked him to an incident of attempted human sacrifice.
The CJM then directed prosecution of four persons, including the newspaper chairman and chief editor.
A news report dated July 11, 2008, was published on the front page of the Lokmat under a Marathi caption, loosely translated to mean ‘Attempt at Human Sacrifice’. The subheading read ‘A child survives death scare due to the alertness of villagers.’ The report in question referred to Patil and ten of his associates being assaulted by villagers on suspicion that they were taking a child to conduct a human sacrifice. The report mentioned that the villagers had taken them to a police station on this suspicion on July 10, 2008.
The High Court was informed that the police later discovered that Patil and his associates were not guilty and that the accompanying child was actually the nephew of one among the group. The police, therefore, did not register any complaint upon being appraised of the misunderstanding. The report of July 11, 2008, however, did not mention the same.
The following day (July 12, 2008), the newspaper, however, carried another report based on the additional input from the police, divulging that no complaint had been registered against Patil and his associates.
Patil complained that many persons had started to spread rumours about the incident and questioned him about the contents of the news report. Aggrieved by all the misunderstanding created by the false report, he initiated defamation proceedings against the publication’s top management and journalists.
Meanwhile, the Bombay high court partly allowed the petition by quashing the proceedings against the newspaper chairman and the chief editor, observing that they could not have had any direct role and responsibility in publishing the news item. The bench, however, rejected the application to quash the case against the news reporter and his Editor.