The Bombay High Court, in a judgment delivered last week, rejected Lodha Developers’ request for an injunction to restrain an online citizen journalist and two flat purchasers from publishing comments criticising them. The comments were posted on social media platforms like YouTube.
Lodha Developers argued that five particular statements made by the defendant online were defamatory and untrue. Finding that the prima facie case requirement for grant of an injunction was not fulfilled, the court held that the statements seemed to fall squarely within the domain of “fair comment”. The freedom to express oneself fairly on any platform was thus given primacy over the “aggressive” wording of such statements.
The court found no prima facie existence of malice or defamatory content during its individual analysis of each of the five impugned statements. On the contrary, there was a justifiable factual context behind the substance of those statements, coupled with the defendant’s ability to prove their veracity during trial. This, the court reasoned, was sufficient in law to deny a request for an injunction.
Interestingly, considering that the impugned statements were published online, the court went a step forward to highlight that “bold, independent and prejudiced comments are not necessarily unfair.” Talking more specifically in the context of social media as an emerging platform to share one’s views, the court, whilst recognising its outreach and influence, commented that “certain negative elements of social media should not make the medium itself undesirable. Social media encourages plurality of opinion.” This marks a major victory for online bloggers and writers, who are often considered unreliable and accused of promoting false propaganda into the minds of innocent readers.
Today, the word ‘press’ has its own nuances attached to it owing to the increased use of social media platforms in democracies. When assertion of opinions reaches an online public platform, a whole spectrum of journalistic rights and duties is created.
Opinions, generally, are portrayed through hyperboles, something the court rightly identified as being “aggressive”. The essence of the asserter’s views lies in his/her choice of words, the advancements of which is an indispensable purpose of the media. If courts were to adjudicate upon the existence of defamation based on the choice of words rather than their underlying substance, it would effectively undermine the importance of the basic human right to free speech.
Online blogs and vlogs are the most sought-after sources of information, encouraging people to make their own responsible judgments. Thus, their fullest scope can only be achieved when the sources of such opinions are allowed to represent conflicting perspectives. Citizen journalists, like the defendant in this case, need this freedom and right to information from sources nodal to their opinion.
Rejection of these opinions merely because of the platform chosen for projection would lead to the fostering of noxious doctrines. The only way of weeding out these noxious doctrines effectively is the free trade of ideas. Right to freedom of expression, after all, does and must include right to fair criticism. Without this, the right is reduced to nothing but an illusion of the ideals of democracy that we try to achieve in the country, because a person might be punished for harmless publications while having the freedom to publish them.
In a world where the lines of the grapevine network have been further entangled and the threshold that divides the reader from the journalist is slowly dissipating, the value of online articles cannot be mitigated. It is no longer just the publishing houses, the editors or the ‘professional’ journalists that control the flow of information. The reader has become a major source of the same due to the available online platforms. They choose which pieces of information to forward, which, in its togetherness is an opinion on its own. Rejection of these pieces of information, or even a mitigation of the importance of the same, would also be a disregard of a person’s opinion on another level. Thus, the Bombay High Court’s judgment has come as a respite at a crucial time of a continuous tussle of opinions.
The authors are second-year students at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai
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Updated Date: May 06, 2019 09:31:16 IST