Two recent judgments, one from the Tis Hazari District Court and the other from the Delhi High Court, have put Media Content and Communications Services Pvt. Ltd. which used to own Star News and Jagran TV Pvt. Ltd, which used to part own IBN 7, in the dock for broadcasting allegedly defamatory content.
Both cases highlight the difficulty in holding the electronic media accountable through the judicial system because the delays often make the relief inconsequential. In these two cases, both the channels have changed hands since the cases were filed (Star News is now known as ABP News and is owned by the ABP Group, IBN7 is now owned by Reliance) and the names of both channels have also changed.
Puneet Mittal v. State – The story of the electric shocks
In the first case of Puneet Mittal v. State, accessible over here, the complainant had alleged that he and his family had been defamed by a news story broadcast by Star News and its reporter Pradeep Srivastava on August 23, 2010. The complainant in this case had been accused of dowry harassment and cruelty by his wife and a FIR to this effect had been filed with the police station in Kotwali, Ghaziabad.
On August 21, 2010 the wife’s family had allegedly taken her back to their home and had allegedly got her admitted to hospital. Two days later, Star News broadcast a story reporting that the wife had been administered electric shocks for six months by her husband and his family and that they were now absconding. The complainant-husband in this case, served a legal notice on Star News and its reporter on September 16, 2010 informing them that there was no mention of electric shocks in the FIR, that the news report was false, and seeking compensation from Star News.
The channel denied the allegations and stood by its reporting. Almost three years later on July 24, 2013, a criminal complaint was filed by the complainant against Star News, its reporter, the wife and her family alleging that all the parties had conspired together to commit criminal defamation.
When a criminal complaint is filed before a magistrate, the magistrate may record the statements of the complainant and if a prima facie case has been made out that an offence has taken place, the magistrate may issue a summons to the accused. Once the summons is issued, the criminal justice system is officially set in motion. In this particular case, the magistrate thought it fit to summon only Star News and its reporter. The summons was issued on December 20, 2013. Since the magistrate did not summon the wife and her relatives, the complainant filed a revision petition before the Sessions Judge who directed the magistrate to conduct a further inquiry into how the reporter came across the information that was later broadcast.
This order was passed on May 29, 2014. The magistrate then once again recorded the statement of the complainant on February 21, 2015 and when the complainant was unable to provide any evidence of a conspiracy, the magistrate dismissed the entire complaint on September 15, 2015 against all the accused, despite having earlier issued a summons to Star News and the reporter. This resulted in another revision petition, which led to the present judgment dated December 21, 2015 where the Sessions Judge set aside the magistrate’s order and directed the criminal trial to proceed against Star News and its reporter.
So here we are, five years after Star News broadcast the story (and has even ceased to exist by that name as a channel) the criminal trial has not yet begun. The timeline of the case, which can be traced from the orders above, paints a sorry picture of the lower judiciary.
Jagran T.V. Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India & Anr. – The ‘Shaitan Doctor’
Unlike the earlier case which was a criminal defamation case, this one involved a direction by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting under the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994 to IBN 7 regarding a news programme that it had broadcast on July 29, 2006.
The programme, titled ‘Shaitan Doctor’, was a sting operation which showed doctors taking money to amputate the limbs of healthy individuals so that they could beg for alms. The sting operation was actually produced by an independent entity called the Dedicated Investigator’s Guild (DIG).
This particular organisation has also been involved in a sting operation regarding the alleged misuse of MPLAD funds by MPs. A subsequent inquiry by a Parliamentary Committee found no proof of corruption (although the MPs were seen discussing commissions, there was no exchange of money) and had in fact pulled up DIG and Star News for non-cooperation with the committee and for engaging in sensationalism. The MPs were let off with a reprimand from the House.
In the ‘Shaitan Doctor’ case, one of the doctors who was featured in the sting filed a complaint with the I&B Ministry which then issued a show-cause notice on November 8, 2007 to IBN 7 asking for an explanation for violating the Programme Code. The channel responded by claiming that there was substantial evidence to support the allegations made in its report.
The I&B Ministry constituted an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) which held a meeting on March 1, 2007. In its first meeting the IMC declined to take any action against the channel since there was no specific decision of any court regarding the allegations raised in the sting and since the IMC lacked the legal expertise to evaluate the evidence.
Subsequently, the Allahabad High Court examined the allegations made in the programme and in an order dated April 20, 2007 stated that “many enquiries were conducted at various levels on the issue in question against Doctor Ajay K. Aggarwal but in each case, he was exonerated. The Court, therefore, saw no point that the matter should be allowed to continue against him anymore”.
The inquiries referred to by the court had been conducted by the Ethics Committee of the Medical Council of India and the UP Medical Council. The Indian Medical Association, Noida had also conducted an enquiry and had made a public appeal for potential witnesses to come forward. None of these inquiries had discovered any evidence of wrongdoing by the doctor. The doctor claimed that another doctor, jealous of his professional success, had connived with DIG to defame him.
In light of this evidence, the IMC reconsidered the complaint by the doctor and issued an order to IBN 7 to run an apology on its channel round-the-clock in the form of a scroll at the bottom of the screen for three days from 05.01.2008 to 08.01.2008. The text of the apology was as follows: “IBN 7 CHANNEL HAS BEEN WARNED BY THE MINISTRY OF' INFORMATION AND BROADCASTING FOR VIOLATION OF THE PROGRAMME CODE BY TELECAST OF A NEWS ITEM TITLED ‘SHAITAN DOCTOR’ IN RESPECT OF DR. AJAI AGARWAL OF GHAZIABAD. IBN 7 CHANNEL APOLOGISES FOR THE SAID VIOLATION AND ASSURES TO BE MORE CAREFUL IN THE FUTURE.” (the court has spelt Ajay Agarwal’s name in two different ways)
The channel filed a writ petition challenging the I&B’s order in 2008 and the resulting judgment was finally delivered by Justice Bakru of the Delhi High Court on January 4, 2016. In this judgment, Justice Bakru sets aside the I&B’s order and orders the Ministry to give the channel a fresh hearing. The reason the order was set aside was because the IMC had based its order on the findings of the Allahabad High Court. The proceedings before the Allahabad High Court did not involve IBN 7 and since the IMC was hearing a complaint against IBN 7, any order passed by the IMC had to also take into consideration the evidence presented by IBN 7 in its defence.
The silver lining, however, is that Justice Bakru has made it crystal clear that the onus of proof lies on IBN 7 and not on the complainant or the I&B Ministry. IBN 7 will therefore have to establish its good faith and the due diligence exercised by it before broadcasting DIG’s sting.
Even presuming that IBN 7 is now found guilty by the I&B Ministry and is made to run the apology, the question remains whether this is an effective punishment, especially since the impugned news report was broadcast more than 10 years ago. Why the Delhi High Court took almost eight years to dispose of such a simple matter is incomprehensible. This case is perhaps a prime example of why India needs to start considering more efficient, cost-effective solutions to deal with regulating the electronic media.
Prashant Reddy Thikkavarapu is a lawyer.