Press can't be put in peril on basis of grounds which are unknown to law: HC

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Jammu and Kashmir High Court has ruled that freedom of the press cannot be put in peril on the basis of the grounds which are unknown to law.

A bench of Justice Sanjay Dhar while quashing an FIR against Times of India (ToI) reporter, Muhammad Saleem Pandit, said: “The limitations on freedom of the press cannot extend to registration of a criminal case against a reporter, who in discharge of his duties and on the basis of information gathered by him, makes a report about certain incidents which he thought in public interest should be published”.

Pandit through his counsel Salih Pirzada had challenged the FIR ( 26/2018) dated 03-04-2018  which was registered against him at police station Kothi Bagh here under section 505 (1) b under Ranbir Penal Code (RPC)  for publishing news item on April 1 and 2 regarding stone pelting on tourists at several spots across Kashmir.

Underscoring that it is immaterial that the said report may have adversely affected the business of some persons as long as the reporter had reasonable grounds to believe that his report is true, the court held that the “police in such type of cases cannot be allowed to hound the journalists by misusing its powers.”

“Unless a publication has been made with an intention to cause fear or alarm whereby a person is induced to commit an offence against the State, the offence under Section 505(1)(b) of RPC is not made out,” the Court said, observing in the instant case, the complaint did not disclose the particulars of any such person who was induced to commit an offence against the State.

“Publication of a report creating fear or alarm in the absence of inducement of a member of public to commit an offence against the State would not satisfy the ingredients of offence under Section 505(1)(b) of RPC,” the court said adding contents of FIR, which is based upon the complaint filed by some Association of Travel Agents was absolutely vague and devoid of any particulars.

While the court held that there no allegation in the complaint or FIR that any member of the public was as a result of publication of the report of petitioner persuaded to do something which is an offence against the State, it said: “reporting of events which a journalist has bona fide reason to believe to be true, can never be an offence”.

Pointing out that fair and frank reporting of events by electronic and print media cannot be curbed merely because it may have an adverse impact on business of some class of persons, the Court said “Taking a contrary view would be violative of the right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India”

“The freedom of speech and expression, which includes within its ambit freedom of the press, is subject only to reasonable restrictions imposed by law for specific purpose”

Citing section 505(1) b, the court said that mere making or publishing of a statement or rumor creating fear or alarm in the absence of inducement of a member of public to commit an offence against the State would not satisfy the ingredients of offence under the provision of the erstwhile RPC.

This provision of the Penal Code, the court said, further contains an exception to the effect that there will be no offence within the meaning of Section 505 RPC when a person making, publishing or circulating any such statement, rumour or report, has reasonable grounds for believing that such statement, rumour or report is true and makes, publishes or circulates it in good faith and without any such criminal intent which may fall within the ambit of Section 505 RPC.

Underscoring that the allegations made in the First Information Report and the complaint, even if taken at their face value and accepted in their entirety, the court said these do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out a case against the petitioner.

“Thus, continuance of investigation in the subject FIR would amount to abuse of process of law” the court said and quashed the FIR against Pandit.