Srinagar: High Court of J&K and Ladakh Wednesday quashed a criminal complaint filed by PDP senior leader and former minister Naeem Akhtar against the Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV, Arnab Goswami.
Scrapping the criminal proceeding against Goswami, a bench of Justice Sanjay Dhar said issuing a process in a criminal complaint against an accused is a serious business and it cannot be done in a casual and mechanical manner, particularly in cases relating to defamation.
In 2018, Akhtar had filed a complaint against Goswami and anchors of the programme before Chief Judicial Magistrate, Srinagar, alleging that on 4 July 2018, the news channel broadcast a “defamatory and malicious” news segment against him following a letter written by a member of BhartiyaJanta Party to the Governor.
In the letter, the member had levelled allegations of corruption and favouritism against “a close aide of former Chief Minister of the State” Mehbooba Mufti.
According to Akhtar, even though the letter did not make a mention of name of any person, Goswami while reporting about the letter, “deliberately and intentionally” mentioned his name in connection with the allegations leveled in the letter.
In the complaint, it was alleged, that the anchors of the programme repeatedly and intentionally kept on mentioning his name in connection with the allegations made in the letter.
Akhter further alleged that the accused persons talked about “massive corruption happening in JKPCC and concluded that such alleged corruption was happening at his behest”. The CJM while taking cognizance of the complaint filed by Akhtar had issued process against Goswani and the anchors on 27 December 2018.
Citing the law laid down by the Supreme Court, the bench said :” it is clear that when a journalist publishes accurate and true report in respect of a public figure relating to his public functions, which is already in public domain, it cannot be stated that there was any intention to harm the reputation of such person”.
“Once a matter becomes a matter of public record, the right to privacy no longer subsists and it becomes a legitimate subject for comment by press and media among others” the Court said. In light of observation of the SC, the court said that the publication of the matters relating to conduct relevant to the discharge of official functions of a public figure is not defamation.
The Court said reporting of allegations levelled by a senior office bearer of a Public Sector Corporation against a Minister touching the public duties of the said Minister would not amount to offence of defamation.
“This is so because categorizing as defamation, the publication of allegations/ charges concerning public duties of public figure
recorded in a letter which is in public domain, would be an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of press guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution”.
“In the instant case, the Magistrate, while issuing process against the petitioners (Goswani and others), it seems, has not applied his mind to the whole material before him,” the court said.
Akhtar, the court said, has himself admitted in the complaint that the BJP member had written a letter to the Governor which contained allegations of corruption against him.
“The news programme, which is contained in a compact disk attached to the complaint clearly shows that the programme was based on the letter of (the BJP Member) and no allegation or imputation emanated from the news anchors or the channel,” Court said.
Pointing out that Akhtar had also placed on record along with the complaint the news paper cuttings of different newspapers in which contents of the letter were extensively referred to and quoted, the Court said: “Therefore, it was obvious that the letter in question was already in public domain”.
“Had the Magistrate applied his judicial mind to the material on record, he would have come to the conclusion that the alleged offence is not made out against the accused,” the court said. “It seems that the Magistrate has approached the whole matter lightly, and in a mechanical manner while issuing the process against (Goswami and others).”