April 20, 2024

Lukmaan IAS

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TIMELY RESTATEMENT: ON PRE-TRIAL INJUNCTIONS AGAINST THE MEDIA AND COURT ORDER

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THE CONTEXT: The Supreme Court of India has recently issued a cautionary order against the granting of pre-trial injunctions to the media in defamation cases, emphasizing the potential threat to freedom of speech and the public’s right to information. This order comes in response to a lower court’s directive to Bloomberg to remove an allegedly defamatory article about Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd., which was upheld by the Delhi High Court. The Supreme Court’s directive serves as a reminder of the importance of adhering to the constitutional mandate to protect journalistic expression and the established three-fold test for interim injunctions.

ISSUES:

  • Interim Injunctions and Freedom of Speech: The Supreme Court highlighted the potential negative impact of interim injunctions on freedom of speech and public debate. The Court emphasized that granting such injunctions without careful consideration can lead to the suppression of journalistic expression.
  • Three-fold Test for Granting Injunctions: The Court reiterated the standard three-fold test for granting interim injunctions, which includes assessing whether there is a prima facie case, whether the balance of convenience favors an interim restraint, and whether not granting the injunction would cause irreparable loss or harm to the plaintiff. The Court criticized the mechanical application of this test without proper analysis of the facts.
  • Judicial Orders Against Media: The three types of judicial orders that have been criticized for imposing questionable restrictions on journalistic publications: gag orders that prevent the publication of information related to ongoing cases, broad prior restraint orders based on a plaintiff’s concerns about defamation, and pre-trial orders directing media houses to remove content and refrain from further publication.
  • Bonnard vs Perryman Principle: The common law principle established in Bonnard vs Perryman, which states that an injunction in a defamation suit should only be granted if the court is convinced that the content is defamatory and that there is no possible justification for its publication during the trial, such as a defense of truth and public interest.
  • SLAPP Suits: The Supreme Court’s order also serves as a reminder of the issue of ‘SLAPP’ suits (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation), which are legal actions used to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism.
  • Early Injunctions as a ‘Death Sentence’: The Court warned that granting an early injunction in what could be a prolonged trial can act as a ‘death sentence’ for the material that is to be published, effectively censoring the content before it can be fully examined in court.

THE WAY FORWARD:

  • Judicious Granting of Injunctions: Courts should exercise exceptional caution when granting pre-trial injunctions, especially ex parte ones, against media platforms. Injunctions should not be granted without establishing that the content is malicious or palpably false.
  • Adherence to the Three-fold Test: The three-fold test for granting interim injunctions—assessing prima facie case, balance of convenience, and irreparable loss or harm—must be applied rigorously and not merely recorded as a mantra. Courts must apply their mind to the facts of the case and provide reasoned orders.
  • Protection of Free Speech: The constitutional mandate of protecting journalistic expression must be underscored. Courts must balance the fundamental right to free speech with the right to reputation and privacy, and tread cautiously while granting pre-trial interim injunctions.
  • Recognition of SLAPP Suits: Courts should be cognizant of the use of SLAPP suits by powerful entities to stifle free speech and public participation. The potential of using prolonged litigation to prevent free speech must be kept in mind by the courts.
  • Full-fledged Trials: Injunctions against the publication of material should be granted only after a full-fledged trial is conducted or after the respondent is given a chance to make their submissions.
  • Reasoned Orders: Courts granting an injunction are expected to record reasons by analyzing the facts, rather than issuing unreasoned orders that amount to censorship.
  • Appellate Intervention: Appellate courts must intervene if the discretion to grant an interim injunction has been exercised capriciously, perversely, or without regard to settled principles of law. The impact of the injunction on the right of free speech further warrants intervention.
  • Avoiding Unnecessary Restraints: Courts should avoid issuing outright gag orders, omnibus prior restraint orders, and pre-trial orders to take down articles, except in exceptional cases where the defense advanced by the respondent would be indefensible.

THE CONCLUSION:

The Supreme Court’s admonition serves as a critical check on the issuance of judicial orders that could unduly restrict journalistic freedom, highlighting the need for courts to thoroughly assess the facts before granting injunctions. The Court’s order also addresses the misuse of ‘SLAPP’ suits by powerful entities to suppress public discourse and underscores the severe consequences of early injunctions in defamation cases, which can act as a ‘death sentence’ for the concerned publication.

UPSC PAST YEAR QUESTION:

Q.1 Starting from inventing the ‘basic structure’ doctrine, the judiciary has played a highly proactive role in ensuring that India develops into a thriving democracy. Considering the statement, evaluate the role played by judicial activism in achieving the ideals of democracy. (2014)

MAINS PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q.1 Discuss the impact of judicial orders on media freedom in India, with a special focus on pre-trial injunctions in defamation cases. Analyze the Supreme Court’s recent caution against such injunctions, considering the balance between protecting reputation and ensuring freedom of speech and information.

SOURCE:

https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/timely-restatement-on-pre-trial-injunctions-against-the-media-and-court-order/article67998564.ece

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