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Madras HC - Restricting Publication Of Newspaper Is To Muzzle Media - Plea Against Exemption Of Prin

The print media acts as one of those organs in the society that is responsible to maintain accountability of the government and provide access to the public about information that should be in public discourse. As the fourth pillar of democracy, they are an asset for a democratic country like India. One of the most influential forms of this print media has been The Newspaper. Its wide reach has ensured transfer of information to the remotest corners around the country. As Mahatma Gandhi said:
Newspapers have become more important to the common man than scriptures.

The Supreme Court of India in the case of The State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain[i] observed ‘right to know’ as a facet of Fundamental Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India.

The Apex Court in the case(s) of Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras[ii] and Brij Bushan v. State of Delhi[iii] observed the Freedom of Press as an essential part of the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.

Patanjali J. observed that:
…freedom of speech and expression includes propagation of ideas and the same is ensured by freedom of circulation.[iv]

In the recent case of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India,[v] the Hon’ble Supreme reiterated that freedom of press is intrinsic to a democratic setup and the governments should respect the same.

The Madras HC, recently, in the case of T Ganesh Kumar v. Union of India,[vi] dismissed a petition which challenged the exemption provided to the print media amid the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19. The exemption was provided vide Notification No. 40-3/2020 dated 24th March 2020 (hereinafter referred as notification), issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Petitioner approached the Madras HC by filing a Writ Petition (W.P.No.7457 of 2020) under Article 226 of the Constitution of India praying for a writ of Certiorari to be issued against the Respondents.

The petitioner prayed that the Part 4(c) of the Notification should be quashed on basis of the apprehension that spread of the COVID-19 is capable via a newspaper.

The petitioner submitted that COVID-19 is capable of spreading through paper surfaces; on which they are capable of surviving for a period of about 4 days. Mr. A. Ramesh, senior counsel appearing on behalf of the Petitioner relied on various studies and researches conducted across the world to substantiate his argument.

He mentioned that according to the study named Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1,[vii] which was published in the The New England Journal of Medicine on March 17th, 2020, the corona virus can persist upon paper and cardboard medium for 4 to 5 days and 24 days respectively. He submitted that if the developed countries like China and USA failed to contain the virus, developing countries like India should not suffer because of the circulation of the newspapers.

Mr. P.H.Aravind Pandian, learned Additional Advocate General, on behalf of the Respondent submitted that the nature of the research is preliminary and is not a final one. It was argued that if the argument of the Petitioner is to be believed, then virus could spread through circulation of currency notes as well. He also highlighted Document No.8 submitted by the Petitioner where Dr. T. Jacob John, Professor of Virology at Christian Medical College, Vellore, stated that the spread of the virus through newspaper is the least.

The learned Additional Advocate General submitted that the Right to Information is a fundamental right and any restraint on the print media would violate the fundamental right of the citizens to seek information and Right to Know protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

The Division Bench of Justices N.Kirubakaran and R Hemlatha after hearing both the sides made pertinent observations about significance of the publication of newspaper in democratic setup. It was promulgated that …any attempt to restrict or prohibit the publication of newspapers would amount to muzzling of independence of Media.

The bench pronounced the order by commencing with the famous quote of the former President of USA, Thomas Jefferson that:
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have Government without newspapers, or newspapers without Government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. The bench dwelled on the issue that the newspaper is expected to provide only news and not mix their individual views with it. Mixing of views and ideology should be avoided, observed the bench.

The court observed that the expert cited by the petitioner himself opined that the likelihood of viral transmissions through newspapers is very minimal. The division bench articulated that, More research is needed to establish that the virus could spread easily through newspapers. When such is a position based on these preliminary researches and in the absence of sufficient data, the prayer sought for by the petitioner cannot be granted." The court suggested various basic measures that can be adopted as safeguards from such transmissions namely ironing the newspaper prior to reading it and washing hands subsequently.

The Court dismissed the plea and therefore observed that:
Mere apprehension or least probability cannot be a ground to prohibit the publication of newspapers as it would amount to violation of the Fundamental Rights, of not only the publisher, editor but also the readers, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

The High Court, through this judgement upheld the constitutional validity of the people’s Right to know and to acquire and disseminate information. The court observed the right of publishers and readers under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. This judgement enunciates the importance of print media in democratic setups like India. The division bench rightly pointed out that these observations were preliminary in nature based on mere apprehension; therefore such possibilities cannot act as a ground to curtail fundamental rights of the citizen in this country.

Case Details: T Ganesh Kumar v. Union of India
Date of Judgement: 9th April, 2020
Case No: Writ Petition No. of 7457 of 2020
Quorum: Justice N. Kirubakaran and Justice R. Hemlatha

End-Notes:
  1. State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain, 1975 AIR 865.
  2. Romesh Thapar v. The State of Madras, 1950 AIR 124.
  3. Brij Bushan and Anr. v. State of Delhi, 1950 AIR 129.
  4. Supra Note 2.
  5. Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, W.P.No.1031 of 2019.
  6. T.Ganesh Kumar v. Union of India, W.P.No.7457 of 2020.
  7. Dr. Van Doremalen, Mr. Bushmaker, and Mr. Morris, Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1, The New England Journal of Medicine, March 17, 2020.

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