I refer to the recent judgement from High Court of Madras which was quoted in the media with headlines such as “Forwarding social media posts equals endorsement, says Madras HC “.
The judgement was in relation to an “Anticipatory Bail Application” by the well known Tamil Artist S.Ve. Shekar, on whom one Mithar Maideen A, State General Secretary, TN Journalist Protection and Welfare Association, Chennai registered a complaint. The FIR was registered on 21st April 2018 at CCB-1, Chennai under Sections 504, 505(1)c) and 509 of IPC and Section 4 of The prohibition of Harassment of woman Act 2002. The FIR was only against S.V.Shekar and there were no other respondents. However, in the judgement, the Court considered several other petitions (Nine petitions) all of which made S V Shekar the accused as the main person who has committed the offences under IPC and sought him to be jailed for upto 6 years.
To any unbiased observer, it was prima facie evident that the Complaints were motivated by the fact that Mr S V Shekar was a BJP leader. Mention of the old Shankar Raman murder case which is considered as one of the false cases instituted by some religious, opponents of the Hindu faith in the complaint was a definite give away for any body looking at the genuineness of the complaint.
The fact that the petitions were only against Mr S V Shekar and not against the others also indicated that the motive of the complainants was prompted by political considerations.
Despite these indications that the complainants had not come to the Court with clean hands, the Court did not dismiss the petitions forthwith and went ahead to pronounce a judgement against Mr S V Shekar. In the process the Court vindicated the complaints and provided it legitimacy.
The decision is now under appeal with the Supreme Court and we need to wait for further developments.
The political and religious issues involved in the case are a subject matter of debate in a different forum in which the Court’s failure to recognize possible ulterior motives of the petitioners is a matter that cannot be ignored.
However, it is necessary to point out that in the judgement, the Court made some comments which has attracted attention of the Social Media observers. As one can observe from the various media reports, the net effect of the judgement has been to create a fear amongst the Social Media users that “Forwarding of Messages would be considered as an endorsement”. This will also affect the WhatsApp users besides Twitter and other FaceBook users.
In a bid to harass a person solely for his political affiliation petitioners had sought to justify their case with an incorrect interpretation of the status of Social Media postings. These should have been rejected by the Court if it had made an independent assessment of the contentions made by the petitioners.
On the other hand, it is unfortunate that the Madras High Court has played along with petitioners and passed an order which incidentally is directly confronting the Supreme Court judgement in the Shreya Singhal Case (Scrapping of Section 66A of ITA 2008).
We have earlier discussed the Shreya Singhal Case in detail in these columns. We had indicated that the Shreya Singhal Judgement was prompted by the right reasons but was technically incorrect for the fact that it considered “Posting of Messages in Face Book and Liking a Message on the Facebook” as equivalent to “Sending messages through a communication device”.
At that time we had pointed out that the Police had made a mistake of booking the Palghar case under Section 66A and where as there was no cause of action under any sections of ITA 2008, instead of dismissing the case forthwith, different Courts presumed that the filing of the case under Section 66A was correct but the problem was with the Section 66A.
The Supreme Court in its judgement stated that Section 66A had created a “Chilling Effect” on the freedom of expression and had no place in the statute. It was so angry that it did not even read down the section but went ahead and scrapped it.
Now this judgement of Judge (Mrs) Ramathilagam essentially denying anticipatory bail as requested has indirectly concurred with the views of the petitioner that “Forwarding of a Message is equivalent to Endorsement”.
The Judgement does not independently analyze the reasons to agree with such a contention nor clarified that it does not agree with such a contention and allowed the judgement to be interpreted wrongly. The judgement has simply reiterated the arguments of the petitioners and proceeded to give its judgement leading to a conclusion that the judgement endorses the arguments made in toto.
The instant case is one of “Alleged Defamation of the Women Journalistic Community” through the use of electronic documents. The cause of action under different sections of IPC are fine but they have to be backed by admissible evidence and proving of the mens-rea. Under ITA 2000/8 sections 67, 67A and 67B speak of offences involved in publishing and transmission of electronic documents. In the absence of Section 66A, sending messages through communication devices is out of ITA 2008 list of offences.
If we go with the Shreya Singhal Judgement which is the current precedent, posting on Facebook, Twitter, Liking, (Retweeting) etc form part of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and cannot be objected on flimsy grounds.
Only in instance of “Child Pornography” under Section 67B, offences can be made out on issues such as forwarding.
The subject complaint is therefore completely out of ITA 2008 and completely against the spirit of the Supreme Court judgement on Section 66A.
If the complaint is sought to be sustained on the basis of IPC, then one has to ask the question if there was any Section 65B certified copy of the electronic document as admissible evidence?. If not, why did the Court proceed arbitrarily without admissible evidence?
If the Court wants to exercise its own discretion in the matter of evidence, questions should be asked about whether the Court considered the antecedents of the Complainants.
It would have been appropriate if the case had been heard by a larger bench taking into account the implications of allowing arguments such as “Forwarding is equivalent to Endorsement” remaining unchallenged.
It would have been prudent for the Judge to have pointed out that she might have come to the conclusion of rejecting the anticipatory bail application for reasons other than the reason that “Forwarding of an Electronic Document in Facebook is equivalent to Endorsement”.
This statement made by the petitioners is short sighted and mischievous and should have been categorically rejected.
Whatever be the political and ideological affiliation of the petitioners, the Court should have avoided passing an erroneous judgement against the Supreme Court’s prevailing order.
If in the process S V Shekar would have got the anticipatory bail which the Court did not like, it could have satisfied it’s urge to express its emotional feelings about the effect of the Facebook post/endorsement by passing strictures on him and warned him in severe terms.
I remember that in one of the past judgements, the Judge stated to the effect… “I know that the accused is guilty but the evidence unfortunately is not sufficient to declare him guilty. I therefore acquit him”. The Judge in this case was clear of his conviction but stuck to the established system of Criminal Jurisprudence.
A similar approach could have been adopted by the Court in this case of S V Shekar’s petition and chastised Mr Shekar in strong terms without endorsing arguments such as “Forwarding is equivalent to endorsement”.
I wish Supreme Court corrects this erroneous judgement.
If Supreme Court is committed to its judgement on Section 66A and Freedom of Expression, it should call this judgement as having “Double Chilling Effect on the Society” and scrap it forthwith. …Unless it is also swayed by the political and religious undertones in the case.
PS: The copy of the order is available here