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Pre-trial Injunctions Against Media

The article discusses the Supreme Court’s stand against hasty pre-trial injunctions on media in defamation cases. It  emphasizes freedom of speech, standard criteria, misuse of ‘SLAPP’ tactics, and upholding legal principles.

What is the context?

A reaffirmation of foundational legal principles is important in the face of judicial directives that appear to overlook them. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling serves as a timely reminder of the potential adverse impacts on freedom of speech and the public’s right to information when pre-trial injunctions are granted against media entities in civil defamation cases.

Key Observations:

The Supreme Court cautioned against the hasty grant of pre-trial injunctions, emphasizing their potential to stifle public debate. This cautionary stance was evident as the Court set aside a Delhi lower court order. It later upheld by the Delhi High Court, that mandated news outlet Bloomberg to remove an allegedly defamatory article about Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. within a week.

Standard Criteria and Constitutional Mandate:

The Court’s brief order reiterated the standard three-fold test for granting interim injunctions:

  • Determining a prima facie case
  • Weighing the ‘balance of convenience’ in favor of an interim restraint
  • Assessing potential “irreparable loss or harm” to the plaintiff

Moreover, the Court emphasized the “constitutional mandate of protecting journalistic expression,” emphasizing its significance in cases involving the media. The Court cautioned against the mechanical application of these criteria, urging judicial officers to provide reasoned justifications based on factual analysis.

Questionable Judicial Orders:

Regrettably, instances persist where judicial orders impose undue restrictions on journalistic freedom. These include:

  • Blanket gag orders prohibiting reporting on ongoing court cases
  • Broad prior restraint orders affecting all media outlets due to a plaintiff’s fear of defamation repetition
  • Pre-trial directives to specific media entities to retract articles and cease further publication
Common Law Principle:

Such restrictive measures seemingly overlook the common law principle established in Bonnard vs Perryman. This principle dictates that an injunction in a defamation suit is permissible only if the court deems the content as defamatory without any justifiable reason for its publication during trial, such as asserting truth and public interest defenses.

Misuse of ‘SLAPP’ Tactics:

The Court’s ruling also highlighted the misuse of ‘SLAPP’ (Strategic Litigation/Lawsuit against Public Participation) tactics by influential entities with economic clout. Such tactics are employed to suppress public criticism of projects and corporations.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court  cautioned that early injunctions, particularly in potentially lengthy trials, can act as a ‘death sentence’ for the content in question. This serves as a reminder of the delicate balance that must be maintained between safeguarding individual reputations and upholding the fundamental principles of freedom of speech and public interest.

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