Delhi High Court has set apart a lower court decision that imposed a stay on the publication of a video by website Cobrapost that allegedly showed political bias among employees of Dainik Bhaskar group.
DB Corp, the publisher of Dainik Bhaskar daily, won the injunction after arguing that the video was malafide and based on “falsifications and deceptive operation”.
The controversy dates back to May this year, when Cobrapost, run by journalist Aniruddha Bahal, carried out an ‘expose’ in which it allegedly showed that almost all major media houses in India were willing to carry slanted news to benefit the ruling party.
To do this, the website got in touch with employees of media houses — mostly in the advertising sales teams — in the guise of being a representative of a pro-Hindutva organization.
These employees were offered the prospect of lucrative advertising deals if they could assure the ‘Hindutva organization’ of positive coverage of matters relating to the ruling front and negative coverage of the opposition party.
DB Corp sought legal remedy after getting an email from Cobrapost on May 10 in which the website claimed that it had recorded eight of its employees/sales agents showing partisan behavior.
In its suit, DB Corp alleged that the publication would cause irreparable injury to its reputation as a media house, that the move was not in public interest. It also argued that the conversations, even if assumed to be real, could not be interpreted as the official policy of the media house, but were reflective of the employees’ personal opinions.
It also pointed out that the employees belonged to the advertising sales department, and could not have given any assurances about ‘positive coverage’ or ‘negative coverage’, as such decisions were taken by the editorial department.
The company managed to get a stay on the publication of the video.
However, a bench of Justice Ravindra Bhat and AK Chawla today overturned the injunction after holding that it violated the principle of free speech and that such actions by the courts could “stifle public debate”.
“The Members of the public and citizens of this country expect news and fair comment as to whether a public institution – including a media house or journal (which cannot claim any exemption from being public institutions as they are the medium through which information is disseminated, and are one of the pillars of democracy) functions properly,” the order said.
“In case, there are allegations which result in controversies as to the reliability of the news which one or the other disseminates to the public, that too is a matter of public debate,” it went on.
“Unless it is demonstrated at the threshold that the offending content is malicious or palpably false, an injunction and that too an ex-parte one, without recording any reasons should not be given.
“Democracy presupposes robustness in debates, which often turns the spotlight on public figures and public institutions – like media houses, journals and editors.
“If courts are to routinely stifle debate, what cannot be done by law by the State can be achieved indirectly without satisfying exacting constitutional standards that permit infractions on the valuable right to freedom of speech,” it added.
Lifting the stay, the High Court added that the case will continue to be heard by the lower court.
Cobrapost was represented by senior advocate and Congress leader Kapil Sibal, while DB Corp was represented by senior advocates Sajan Poovayya and Neeraj Malhotra.