Freedom Of Press Can’t Be One-Way Traffic, Says Supreme Court In ‘The Wire’ Defamation Case
Members of the media gather outside of the India Supreme Court in New Delhi, India, (Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg)

Freedom Of Press Can’t Be One-Way Traffic, Says Supreme Court In ‘The Wire’ Defamation Case

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Freedom of press cannot be a one-way-traffic and yellow journalism should not take place, the Supreme Court said while dealing with the defamation cases filed by Jay Shah, son of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, against news portal ‘The Wire’ and its scribes over an article.

Though the apex court allowed the portal’s plea to withdraw the appeals against the Gujarat High Court order to face trial in the cases, it expressed anguish over the way journalism is being practised in which the institution of judiciary also suffered in the recent days.

The top court, which ordered that the competent court would expeditiously complete the trial in the cases against the news portal and its scribes, said “freedom of press is supreme but can’t be a one-way traffic”.

“Yellow journalism should not take place,” a bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, MR Shah and BR Gavai said, while severely criticising the practice that news portals don’t even wait for more than five-six hours after giving notice seeking explanation to a person and publish the news reports.

While these remarks were made, Solicitior General Tushar Mehta said it would be an understatement to say what the news portals are doing is yellow journalism. When senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for ‘The Wire’ and its scribes, sought withdrawal of appeals, the bench said “why should we allow you to withdraw?”

In a civilised country the news reports are being published against a person by giving a very short notice and not even waiting for the response, the bench said. “How has this culture come up in India?” asked the bench to Sibal and added “We have suffered a lot. It is a very serious issue.”

The bench repeatedly observed that news portals give a notice of few hours and then without waiting any further, they publish the damaging articles. “The institution has suffered. We have suffered. What is this kind of journalism? Why we should not take the issue suo motu and settle it? We want the matter to be decided. We are worried as the judge of this court" the bench said in an apparent reference to the articles also published by news portals in connection with the judiciary and judges.”

Mehta said: “This has been happening with everyone.” The bench said it is very unfortunate that after the matter is pending for such a long time, for one-and-a half year, it is being withdrawn.

“We want to tell truth to the country but we are unable as the case is being withdrawn,” the bench said while Shah’s counsel NK Kaul alleged that the news portal’s article was a deliberate attempt to malign him.

“This is a serious case. You have to ponder over it,” the bench told Sibal. While permitting to withdraw the petitions, the bench said it was parting with the case with the observation that the notice was given by ‘The Wire’ and within 12 hours of the notice before the response and explanation of Shah, he was maligned by the publication.

“This type of threat should not be given,” the bench said about the short notice after which the matter is made public. While the heated exchange of words was taking place between the judges, lawyers for The Wire and Shah’s counsel, the bench said that with such kind of journalism damage has already been done to the institution.

Sibal said the news portal and its scribes are ready to face the trial but such observations in the order will affect their case during the trial. The bench, in its order, noted that the observations will not affect the case during the trial. While concluding the hearing, Justice Mishra said: “We want to say many things but we wont say it”.

Sibal too replied: “I also want to say many things but wont say so.” Later in the evening, Siddharth Varadarajan, one of the founding editors of the portal issued a statement: “We told the court we wanted to withdraw and face trial. The bench has had no occasion to hear either side on the merits of The Wire article on Jay Shah story. Yet Justices Arun Mishra and RB Gavai called it ‘yellow journalism’.

“By fighting things out in a trial, we will clearly and precisely establish on evidence that we meticulously followed every journalistic norm, that we only published what we could defend,” he said. Shah has filed two cases—one criminal defamation and other a civil suit of Rs 100 crore.

The complaint was filed against journalist Rohini Singh, founding editors of the news portal Siddharth Varadarajan, Siddharth Bhatia and MK Venu, managing editor Monobina Gupta, public editor Pamela Philipose as also the Foundation for Independent Journalism, which publishes 'The Wire'.

Jay Shah had moved the lower court alleging defamation by the petitioners after the article claimed that his company's turnover grew exponentially after the BJP-led government came to power at the Centre in 2014.

In April last year, the apex court had said that “there cannot be gagging of the press” and asked Jay Shah and the news portal to settle the civil defamation suit. The high court, in February last year, had allowed the appeal filed by Jay Shah against a lower court order, which had partly lifted the injunction against the news portal while restraining it from linking the article to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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