HC quashes case filed by AIADMK govt against journalists who wrote on pandemic issues

Founder of the news portal SimpliCity, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian and his wife Deepa, who is also a journalist, were booked for two of their reports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SimpliCity website founder Andrew Sam Raja Pandian
SimpliCity website founder Andrew Sam Raja Pandian
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The Madras High Court has quashed a case filed against the founder and a journalist of SimpliCity, a Coimbatore based news online portal, for their news reports during the COVID-19 pandemic. Founder of the news portal Andrew Sam Raja Pandian and his wife Deepa, who is also a journalist, were booked by the then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government for reporting about shortage of food for Postgraduates in the Coimbatore Medical College and Hospital and shortages in the public distribution system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Justice GK Ilanthiraiyan, in his judgement dated October 11, 2023, went into each section of the case and observed that there were no offences made against the journalists, and ordered the case to be quashed.

Andrew was arrested by the police on April 24, 2020, and was later let out on bail. This was the first instance the Epidemic Diseases Act was invoked to arrest a journalist during the pandemic. 

The duo were booked for their stories 'No timely and adequate food, allege UG and PG Student Doctors at CMCH Hostel', which was about how doctors pursuing their under graduation and postgraduation at the CMCH hostel were forced to protest for food amidst pandemic duty; and 'Looting at ration shops during lockdown, govt's grant of Rs.1000 swindled, lament public', which alleged that ration shop workers were looting provisions meant for the poor.

No intent to incite public mischief or riot

The judge observed that in order to attract the offences under Section 505(1)(b) of IPC, there must be an intention to incite public mischief and mutiny among others and that the news articles showed that this offence was not made out.

The court further pointed out that according to section 196(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), cognizance of an offence under section 505(1)(b) of IPC (statements conducive to public mischief) cannot be taken without previous sanction of the government. However, taking into note that a government order was passed by the Public (Law and Order-H) Department to prosecute the journalists, the court said that “no ingredients or offence” was made out under the section.

Regarding section 153 of IPC that pertains to wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot-if rioting be committed-if not committed, the judge said that there should be three components for the section to stand - the said act must be illegal; such illegal act must be malignantly done; and as a result of such illegal act, there must be a situation, which may cause riot.

However, the court pointed out that there was no intention to cause a riot by publishing the news article. Further, the court added that “news cannot be said to be an illegal act.” 

“Further, the true publication of a happening or dissemination thus published in good faith, the agitation that took place cannot be said to be an illegal act. Therefore, publication of news articles in the website would not attract offences under Section 153 of IPC,” the court ruled.

Stating that there should be an intention to break the public peace to attract offences under section 504 of IPC, the court observed that the prosecution failed to provide any materials to prove their case.

“The above said news articles were published in a good faith and with no evidence to show that the public peace has been broken and no one has committed any other offence pursuant to the publication of news items in the website. There is no intentional insult to anybody and therefore, offences under Section 504 are not at all barred as against the petitioners,” the judgement read.

Press and Registration of Books Act

Section 3 of the Press and Registration of Books Act states that all books and papers printed within India should print the name of the printer and place of printing, along with the name of the publisher and place of publication. Section 12 of the Act says that anyone who prints books or papers without following section 3 can be punished with a fine or simple imprisonment or both. The court ruled that these sections were not applicable to this case as the sections apply to printed materials, and quashed the entire case.

Andrew and Deepha were booked for offences under sections 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by a civil servant), 505 (1)(b) (statements conducing to public mischief), 153 (provocation, with intent to cause riot), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) and 120B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), section 3 (penalty) of the Epidemic Diseases Act and sections 3 (particulars to be printed on books and papers) and 12 (penalty for printing contrary to rule in section 3) of Press and Registration of Books Act.

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