SC on Liability of Owner of Newspaper for Defamatory Publication

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December 08, 2017

Mohammed Abdulla Khan vs. Prakash K.

Date of Judgment: December 04, 2017

In the instant case, the Two-Judge Bench of Supreme Court took up a crucial issue pertaining to the vicarious liability of the owner of newspaper for defamatory content prepared by the Editor and published in the newspaper. In the case at hand, the Supreme Court also condemned the High Court of Karnataka for quashing the defamation proceedings against the owner of the newspaper i.e. Respondent under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

Background- In the case, the Respondent is owner of a Kannada Daily Newspaper by name “Jaya Kirana” published from Mangalore, Karnataka. The case related to impugned article in the Respondent’s newspaper containing certain allegations against the appellant which according to the Appellant were highly defamatory in nature.

Aggrieved by the impugned news, the Appellant lodged a report against the respondent and another person who was Editor of the abovementioned newspaper whereby cognizance of the matter for the offences punishable under Sections 500, 501 and 502 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (punishment for defamation and for printing defamatory content).

Aggrieved by this the respondent filed Revision Petition before the Sessions Judge, however the respondent’s revision was dismissed. Respondent approached the Karnataka High Court invoking Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973[1]. The High Court allowed the Respondent’s petition and quashed the proceedings against the Respondent.

Aggrieved by the High Court’s order to quash proceedings against the Respondent, the Appellant in the case approached the Supreme Court.

Bench’s Verdict

The pivotal issue for consideration in the case related to vicarious liability of the owner of newspaper for content published by the Editor of newspaper?

Authority in K.M. Mathew’s caseThe appellant in the case relied on the case of K.M. Mathew v. K.A. Abraham[2]. This case was in context of a managing editor, resident editor or a chief editor of respective newspaper publications, who were parties therein.

In the case it was held that though the presumption under Section 7 of the Press and Registration of Books Act was not applicable to somebody whose name is printed in the newspaper as the Chief Editor, the complainant can still allege and prove that persons other than the Editor, if they are responsible for the publication of the defamatory material and that somebody other than editor can also be held responsible for selecting the matter for publication in a newspaper.

Offence under Sections 499, 500, 501 and 502 of IPCThat committing any act which constitutes defamation under Section 499 of IPC is punishable offence under Section 500 of IPC. Printing or engraving any defamatory material is altogether a different offence under Section 501 IPC. Offering for sale or selling any such printed or engraved defamatory material is yet another distinct offence under Section 502 IPC.

The Apex Court remarked that if the content of any news item carried in a newspaper is defamatory as defined under Section 499 of IPC, the mere printing of such material “knowing or having good reason to believe that such matter is defamatory” itself constitutes a distinct offence under Section 501 IPC. The sale or offering for sale of such printed “substance containing defamatory matter” “knowing that it contains such matter” is a distinct offence under Section 502 IPC.

That whether the respondent against whom a complaint is registered under various Sections 500, 501 and 502 of the IPC could be convicted for any of those offences depends upon the evidence regarding the existence of the facts relevant to constitute those offences.

That in the facts of the present case, first of all it must be established that the matter printed and offered for sale is defamatory within the meaning of the expression under Section 499 of IPC. If so proved, then next step would be to examine the question whether the accused committed the acts which constitute the offence i.e. requisite intention and knowledge to make the acts culpable.

That if the respondent is the person who either made or published the defamatory imputation, he would be liable for punishment under Section 500 of IPC and if he is the person who “printed” the matter within the meaning of the expression under Section 501 of IPC .

That to constitute an offence under Section 502 of IPC, it must be established that the respondent is not only the owner of the newspaper but also sold or offered the newspaper for sale.

That for the acts of printing or selling or offering to sell need not only be the physical acts but include the legal right to sell i.e. to transfer the title in the goods – the newspaper. Those activities if carried on by people, who are employed either directly or indirectly by the owner of the newspaper, perhaps render all of them i.e., the owner, the printer, or the person selling or offering for sale liable for the offences under Sections 501 or 502 of IPC (as the case may be) if the other elements indicated in those Sections are satisfied.

Vicarious Liability under Criminal LawThe respondent in the case had argued that there can be no vicarious liability insofar as the criminal law is concerned. The complainant’s allegation of the defamatory material published in the newspaper against him, even if it is established, can only be sustained against the editor of the newspaper and not the owner of the newspaper.

In this context, the Supreme Court opined that where defamatory matter is printed and sold or offered for sale, whether the owner thereof can be heard to say that he cannot be made vicariously liable for the defamatory material carried by his newspaper etc. requires a critical examination.

The Supreme Court in view of the aforesaid observations allowed the appeal and set aside the High Court’s judgment and directed the Trial Court in the case to investigate the matter in accordance to law.

[1] Section 482 of CrPC provides for the inherent powers of the High Court to make such orders to prevent abuse of process of any Court or secure ends of justice.

[2] (2002) 6 SCC 670