The Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) has expressed surprise and concern over the impact of the recent decision of the Supreme Court that dismissed the Special Leave Petition filed by Times Now, a member channel, which sought relief against a High Court decree that stipulated the channel to deposit Rs 20 crore and furnish bank guarantee for Rs 80 crore, to hear an appeal in defamation case.
In a statement issued, IBF said: “We have been informed that conditions involving quantum of damages of this kind are unheard of in the history of defamation laws and effectively cripples the media’s right to seek redressal by way of appeal. In a legal environment where rewarding of exemplary and punitive damages are rarely seen, the trial court’s decision definitely raises serious concerns as regards the media’s freedom of speech and expression. This case is an example of how an unintentional and inadvertent error on the part of the media can result in onerous commercial burden for itself, despite a public apology being tendered by Times Now.”
Stating that the media played a very important role in protecting the fundamental rights of citizens, IBF stressed that “an independent, fearless and competitive media is an essential ingredient of a true democracy. Any curb on media independence is a threat to the democratic process and must be challenged. If stipulations such as these become the norm, news channels would be targeted at every instance, thereby affecting the survival and existence of this news industry. It also would challenge the democratic environment and the citizen’s right to seek information”.
It further stated that such decisions should be “reviewed and reconsidered”, “because of media is compelled to pay up damages of such quantum, despite the issuance of a public apology for an inadvertent error, it would effectively cripple the functioning of the media and an economic burden of such nature would completely jeopardise media business as it directly impacts media freedom, independence and survival, the very essentials of a democratic set up in any country.”
Meanwhile, Ashish Bagga, President, the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), in a press statement, said that the order had sent shock waves through media circles across the country.
The statement further said that the quantum of damages awarded by a lower court and the direction of the higher courts to deposit the entire amount to allow an appeal to be heard for an unintentional technical error would potentially threaten the survival and existence of media in India. While recognising that the law of defamation was an important qualification of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, Bagga said that the law of defamation should be construed in such a manner that it did not constrain the normal functioning of the media, indeed the very existence of media.
“The Indian Newspaper Society and its members hold the judiciary in the highest esteem, and believe it has played a critical role in safeguarding the rights of citizens. There is need in the Times Now matter for a display of judicial sagacity, and INS hopes that the judiciary will find occasion to review its decision,” the statement added.