Balancing Public Information and Media Truth with Individual Reputation Right

In a recent judgment delivered on May 31, 20241, the Delhi High Court (“Court“) dismissed 2 (two) suits filed by an individual seeking compensation/damages for loss of his reputation, against the newspaper Hindustan Times and its publisher, editor and correspondent (hereinafter together referred to as the “Defendants“). The plaintiff in the present matter, Mr. Mahaveer Singhvi (“Plaintiff“), was well-known for his scholastic achievements as a student, was an achiever and was also selected in the UPSC examination. He joined Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration and later on joined the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). He was discharged from FSI while he was under probation and challenged this dismissal before the Central Administrative Tribunal, which dismissed his petition. However, the Delhi High Court had directed his reinstatement, which was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Defendants published articles, namely “IFS probationer sacked after tapes ‘prove’ misconduct“, “Foreign office in a quandary over probationer’s sacking” in Hindustan Times and a third article titled “Shadi Se Inkaar Karne Par Adhikari Ne Yuvti Ka Jeena Haram Kiya” was published in newspaper Hindustan (Hindi edition). The Plaintiff argued that the articles egregiously breached the journalistic standards issued by the Press Council of India and contained false information. He claimed that the newspaper reports harmed his dignity, diminished his prestige, moral and intellectual character in the eyes of the general public causing significant damage to his reputation and leading to severe adverse socioeconomic consequences. The Defendants asserted that they had acted in good faith and with due diligence, without any malice.

The Court looked into various definitions of defamation and stated that the intrinsic facet of ‘defamation’ is harm to ‘reputation’ or lowering the estimation of a person in public domain. Additionally, the Court examined the definition of reputation and noted that the law aims to protect the reputation and not character and while distinguishing between reputation and character, the Court said that: “Character is what a person really is; reputation is what he seems to be. One is composed of the sum of the principles and motives which govern his conduct. The other is the result of observation of his conduct, the character imputed to him by others. The right to reputation in its vital aspect, is not concerned with fame or distinction. It has regard, not to intellectual or other special acquirements, but to that repute which is slowly built up by integrity, honorable conduct, and right living. One’s good name is therefore, as truly the product of one’s efforts as any physical possession; indeed, it alone gives the value as source of happiness, to material possessions. It is, therefore, reputation alone that is vulnerable; character needs no adventitious support.

The Court further noted that any statement likely to harm a person’s reputation or diminish their standing in society results in a loss of reputation and is therefore defamatory. To determine if a statement has caused such loss, it is necessary to consider whether there was a wrongful intention to damage another’s reputation. This wrongful intention, known as ‘malice’, is a crucial element in establishing defamation.

In commenting on the role of the Press, the Court stated that “In today’s free world, freedom of Press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society. The purpose of the Press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments.”

The Court also referenced the case of Bloomberg Television Production Services India Pvt. Ltd. V. Zee Entertainment Enterprise Ltd.2 (discussed in our article here), in which the Supreme Court noted that defamation cases involving media platforms and/or journalists require an additional consideration of balancing the fundamental right to free speech with the right to reputation and privacy.

The Court observed that the public’s right to information and the duty of the Press to disseminate it are limited by the obligation not to spread false information or present the news in a way that harms individual’s reputation. This responsibility is particularly stringent for the media due to their extensive reach; once something is published, it becomes permanently available and can reach a wide audience, potentially causing irreparable harm. The Court also stated that the primary role of the Press is to provide accurate and comprehensive information, especially when it is made public.

The Court summarized the main elements of civil law of defamation as follows:

  • Publication of a statement about the aggrieved person that exposes such person to hatred, ridicule or contempt or which causes him to be shunned or avoided or tends to injure him in his office, profession or calling;
  • Harm to the person’s reputation is what matters, not the defendant’s intention; the defendant’s lack of intent to defame is irrelevant; and
  • the statement must be published by the defendant to a third party; and
  • the statement must be false.

The Court also noted that in the context of newspaper publications, defenses such as truthful statement, fair comment for public good and privileged statement cannot result in civil liability. 

Regarding the articles, the Court observed that they were based on privileged sources of the reporter. The Court also referenced the Defendants’ evidence, which indicated that the articles were published after thorough verification of the authenticity and credibility of the source. The Court concluded that the articles reported the news in a neutral and truthful manner, based on verified information. The truthfulness of the reported news was further supported by a subsequent reply from the Union of India, indicating that the reporting was neither malicious nor made in bad faith. The Defendants simply fulfilled their duty to bring news to the public, who have a right to information. Balancing the public’s right to information with the media’s duty for truthful and the individual’s right to protect their reputation, the Court held that the articles in question were not inherently defamatory and therefore dismissed the suits.

1Mahaveer Singhvi vs. Hindustan Times Limited and Others (2024 SCC OnLine Del 4409).

2 SLP (C) No. 6696/2024.