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Media bodies express concern over Supreme Court decision on Times Now
November, 19th 2011

Industry bodies representing media organisations have expressed concern over a recent decision by the Supreme Court to dismiss a special leave petition filed by Times Now seeking relief against a high court decree in a defamation suit.

The Bombay High Court had asked Times Now to deposit 20 crore in court and furnish a bank guarantee of Rs 80 crore. "Such damages came to be awarded inspite of the fact that Times Now had issued a public apology and expressed true contrition for the mistake," the News Broadcasters Association said in a statement.

"If innocent errors committed by media are visited with such dire legal consequences, and if media companies are compelled to pay such disproportionately exorbitant damages, despite the issuance of a public apology, it would effectively cripple the functioning of the media," it said.

"The economic burden of such 'gargantuan amounts' would completely jeopardise the media businesses and will directly impact media freedom, independence and survival, which are essential for a vibrant democratic set up in any country," the association added.

The Indian Newspaper Society said that there was the need for a display of judicial sagacity in the Times Now matter. "The judiciary will find occasion to review its decision," it said.

INS president Ashish Bagga said in a press release that an order of the apex court upholding the high court's direction to Times Global, owners of Times Now, has sent shock waves through media circles across the country.

"The quantum of damages awarded by a lower court and the direction of the higher courts to deposit the entire amount to allow an appeal to be heard for an unintentional technical error will potentially threaten the survival and existence of media in India," he said.

While recognising that the law of defamation is an important qualification of the Fundamental Right to freedom of expression, he said that the law of defamation should be construed in such a manner that it does not constrain the normal functioning of the media, indeed the very existence of media.

The Indian Broadcasting Foundation also expressed surprise and concern over the impact of the Supreme Court's decision.

"We have been informed that conditions involving quantum of damages of this kind are unheard in the history of defamation laws and effectively cripple the media's right to seek redressal by way of appeal," IBF said in a statement.

In a legal environment, where awarding exemplary or punitive damages are rarely seen, the trial's court decision definitely raises serious concerns as regards to the media's freedom of speech and expression, it said.

NBA added that an independent, fearless and dynamic media was a critical ingredient of a true democracy and any curb on media independence, whether direct or indirect, was a serious threat to the democratic process and must not be countenanced.

Media associations were of the view that if stipulations such as these become the norm, news media would be targeted at every instance, affecting the very survival and existence of the news industry as a whole.

"Media plays a very important role in protecting the Fundamental Rights of the people, including the public's right to know and is often termed as "the fourth pillar" of democracy.

"An independent, fearless and dynamic media is a critical ingredient of a true democracy," NBA said.

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