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Upholding Criminal defamation is a setback to media freedom

 2016-05-16 08:17:19.0


BY Parmanand Pandey

The Supreme Court judgement in �Subramaniam Swami vs Union of India� is going to have far reaching implications for dissent and free speech. This judgment has been authored by justice Deepak Mishra, a very bright and an erudite judge of the Supreme Court, who is known for his fine texture of language and intensive understanding of law. This judgment has come as a shocker for those who have been demanding for the abolition of a colonial law which criminalises defamation. This is a certainly a setback to those who have been championing for unfettered freedom under Article � 19(1)(a) of the Constitution; which, of course, is subject to the restriction under section � 19(2).

The Court rejected the plea that criminal defamation in modern times would amount to imposition of silence. The Court further said that �mutual respect is the fulcrum of the fraternity that assures dignity. It does not mean that there cannot be dissent. It does not convey that all should join the chorus or sing the same song. Indubitably not. One has a right to freedom of speech and expression but one is also required to maintain the idea of fraternity that assures the dignity of individual�.

The Court has under scored the role of the media and termed it as a pubic educator. The first condition of liberty is that the voice of dissent and disagreement has to be respected but it did not agree to the logic that the criminal defamation has a chilling effect to suppress its freedom.

The Court further said that reckless defamatory comments are unacceptable. Therefore, the right to protect ones honor through section � 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code is a highly valued and cherished. Sections � 499 and 500 of the IPC provides two years� imprisonment for a person found guilty of defamation. However, the court has placed the public servants in a different class. This has been one of the pleas of the petitioners to abolish the discrimination and put the private and public citizens on the same footing.

Be that as it may, this judgment has thrown icy cold water on the enthusiasm of the libertarians. Most of the countries of the world including neighbouring Sri Lanka have decriminalized defamation, which should be a civil offence alone. Even many African countries have done away with criminal defamation. This judgment of the Supreme Court will be used to muzzle the freedom of speech. Therefore, this judgment in a way is a retrogressive, which will provide enough handle to those who indulge into corruption and try to keep the media at bay by holding out a threat of slapping the case of defamation on them. The judgment is distressing and will certainly create many roadblocks for journalists, whistle-blowers and the lovers of freedom.

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