(1.) HEARD Mr. G. Choudhury, learned counsel appearing for the appellants (defendants). Also heard Mr. S. P. Sharma, learned counsel appearing for the Opp. Parties (plaintiffs).
(2.) THIS appeal is presented against the judgment and decree dated 31. 3. 2006 in Money Suit No. 6 (H) of 2003, rendered by the learned Assistant District Judge, Shillong whereby the suit has been decreed on contest for a sum of Rs. 40,00,000/- (Rupees forty lakhs).
(3.) THE plaintiff No. 1, M/s. North Eastern Indian Trust for Education and Development (NEITED) and its Secretary as plaintiffs filed the Money Suit No. 6 (H) of 2003 against the appellants in connection with 3 news paper publications dated 26. 8. 2003 (Exhibit 2), 28. 8. 2003 (Exhibit 4) and 5. 9. 2008 (Exhibit 6), published in the "meghalaya Guardian", a daily newspaper of Shillong published by the appellant Nos. 1 and 2, of which the appellant No. 3 was the Chief Correspondent and at the time of his evidence, the Executive Editor. The plaintiffs claimed that by the above publications, the defendant-appellants had defamed the plaintiffs and jeopardized their efforts to set up a joint venture Medical College in Meghalaya State in partnership with the Government. The plaintiffs also claimed that the information carried in the 3 news reports were untrue and accordingly they claimed damages of Rs. 1,00,00,000/- (Rupees one crore) only for the false imputation made by the defendants by the said 3 publications.
(4.) THE appellants filed their written statement where they justifed the 3 news items as fair comments. The defendants also claimed that press has a responsibility to inform the public about various developments in Society and the concerned news reports were claimed to serve the interest of the General Public.
(5.) THE learned trial Court framed the following 6 issues on the basis of the pleadings of the parties :
1) Whether there is cause of action for the suit ?
2) Whether the suit is maintainable ?
3) Whether the Court has got jurisdiction to try this suit ?
4) Whether the news item appears on 26. 8. 2003, 28. 8. 2003 and Birbal Notes on the Meghalaya Guardian are false and baseless news with a sole and malicious intention to defame the plaintiff ?
5) Whether the said news and notes are amounting to defamation of plaintiff ?
6) Whether the plaintiff is entitled to the amount as claimed in the suit ?
(6.) THE trial Court considered that the fate of the suit hinges on issue No. 4 and while answering the said issue held that the news reports were false and baseless and were published with malicious intent to defame the plaintiffs. Consequently the Court held the plaintiffs to be entitled to damages for loss of reputation, bodily and mental pain and expenses of litigation and quantified the claim at Rs. 40,00,000/- (Rupees forty lakhs) and decreed the suit accordingly.
(7.) THE impugned decree is assailed by the appellants by arguing that the plaintiffs in their plaint did not indicate specifically the passages in the three news reports which were considered libelous by them and under such circumstances it is submitted that the Court ought to have considered the plaintiff's claim as defective and should not have decreed the suit. 7. 1. In support of this contention, Mr. G. Choudhury, learned counsel relies upon the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of DDSA Pharmaceuticals Ltd. Vs. Times Newspapers Ltd. reported in (1972) 3 All ER 417. In this case, Lord Denning, M. R. writing for the Court recorded that precise pleadings are necessary to claim damages for defamation and plaintiffs are required to specify the passages in the news item considered to be defamatory by the plaintiffs and unless it is so specified, the claim becomes defective.
7. 2. Another decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Collins Vs. Jones reported in (1955) 2 All ER 145 is also cited by Mr. Choudhury where the Court held that a plaintiff in a libel action not only must setout with reasonable certainty in his pleading the words complained of, but also must be prepared to give such particulars as to ensure that he has an appropriate case to put before the Court and is not merely fishing for one.
7. 3. The appellants also challenge the judgment and decree of the trial Court by contending that no evidence was recorded by the plaintiffs to show their status and reputation in the Society and in what manner the said status and reputation had suffered by the offending publications. Mr. Choudhury refers to the evidence of PW 2 (D. Sen) to contend that the said witness in his cross-examination specifically stated that he does not know which part of the news items are defamatory. Accordingly it is argued that unless the allegedly defamatory portion of the news items are specified by the plaintiffs and the Court also considers such passages to be defamatory, there cannot be any justification to sustain the impugned decree passed against the appellants.
7. 4. With regard to third publication made on 5. 9. 2003 (Exhibit 6), the learned counsel refers to the evidence of the Executive Editor of Meghalaya Guardian (DW 1), who deposed that the said report was written in lighter vein and should be considered as banter and humour and ought not to be considered seriously by the readers. But Mr. Sharma on behalf of the plaintiffs submits that in so far as the plaintiffs are concerned, serious damages has been done to them by the said publication and it cannot be justified as an attempt at humour by the publishers.
(8.) REPRESENTING the Opposite Parties, Mr. S. P. Sharma, learned counsel submits that there was no obligation cast by law on the plaintiffs to specify the passages in the news items which the plaintiffs considered as libel. The learned counsel submits that the plaintiffs after publication of the offending news items having found the same to be untrue, had sent in a clarificatory communication dated 26. 8. 2003 (Exhibit 3) written by the plaintiff No. 2 to Meghalaya Guardian and since no corrective news item was published by the defendants, a legal notice was also sent on 28. 8. 2003 to the defendants. But despite these communications, the defendants did not retract from their published stand and accordingly it is contended that since malicious and unfair comments have been made on incorrect facts, the defendants are liable for action under libel law.
8. 1. Mr. Sharma refers to the definition of fair comment given in Halsbury's Laws of England to contend that it is the responsibility of the defendants who plead fair comments to give particulars of the facts on the basis of which such comments have been made and since the defendants did not discharge the said burden, the learned counsel submits that the decree was rightly passed by the learned trial Court.
8. 2. Mr. Sharma refers to the decision of the Supreme Court reported in AIR 1997 SC 73 in the case of In Re : Harijai Singh to submit that freedom of Press is not absolute, unlimited and unflatered and the Press has the duty to be responsible. Mr. Sharma also cites the decision of the Bombay High Court in the case of Rustom K. Karanjia Vs. Krishnaraj M. D. Thackersey reported in AIR 1970 Bombay 424 to contend that in an action for defamation, the injuries that are sustained is not merely the loss of esteem but also grief or annoyance caused to the plaintiffs by the defamatory statement. Accordingly the learned counsel contends that the defendants cannot escape the liability for the defamatory news items on the second count, as definite grief and annoyance were suffered by the plaintiffs by the libelous publication.
(9.) TAKING note of the rival contentions we can see that the plaintiffs have not referred to any specific passage in the 3 news reports which they considered to be damaging and defamatory. But the plaintiffs contend that all 3 reports in their entirety constitute libel by stating that they were published without verifying the correctness of the fact. They also say that the clarifications issued by the plaintiff No. 2 on 26. 8. 2003 (Exhibit. 3), soon after the first offending news report was published, was not heeded by the defendants and no clarification in the newpaper was published, as was requested to be published by the plaintiff No. 2. After the second publication dated 28. 3. 2003, the plaintiffs on the same day i. e. on 28. 3. 2003 sent a legal notice pointing out the inaccuracies and demanding an apology. The issues are specifically mentioned in paragraph 16 of the plaint. But once again the publishers did not exercise care and went ahead and published the third report on 5. 9. 2003. In the plaint the third report dated 5. 9. 2003 has been described as a vindictive attempt to malign the image of the plaintiff Trust and the Trustees. How the report had jeopardized the joint venture project was also stated.
(10.) THE case projected by the counsel for the Opp. Parties (Plaintiffs) is that since the offending news items were based on incorrect facts, the decree awarded by the learned Trial Court is required to be sustained as the defendants have published later 2 reports with a malicious intent to cause damage to the plaintiffs, even after the correct facts were made known to the newspaper soon after the first report was published on 26. 8. 2003.
(11.) IT would now be appropriate to scrutinize the case records to see whether anything on record is available to demonstrate that the publications have affected the plaintiffs' public image. On reading of the evidence, we do not find that any evidence has been adduced by the plaintiffs to show that as a consequence of the publications, there has been diminution of the esteem in which others in the Society have held the plaintiffs. Therefore, we conclude that there is no material basis for damages being awarded to the plaintiffs on this count.
(12.) IN so far as the grief or annoyance that might have been caused to the plaintiffs by the publications, we feel that the defendants have not acted responsibility in the matter. No doubt the Press has a duty to carry news of public interest and is also entitled to make fair comments on matters of public importance. But their very power carries with it the burden to exercise due responsibility and care. They must strive for the truth and be objective in their reports. When the plaintiffs have given a clarificatory letter after the first publication that the report is not correct, the defendants should have been more cautious and should have published further reports only after proper verification. But they did not act responsibly and published two more reports, making libelous attack on the plaintiffs. In this context, particularly the third report published on 5. 9. 2003 (Exhibit 6), was truly vicious and intended to cause harm to the plaintiff Trust and its Trustees.
12. 1. On reading of the Exhibit 6 report, we are unable to agree with the contention made by the appellants that the comments contained therein are mere banter and is an attempt at humour by the concerned news paper. The said news item is published under the heading "char sau bees ?" and makes serious allegation on the conduct of the plaintiff No. 1. In our view the said news item cannot be brushed aside as something written in lighter vein in the category of banter or humor, as the Exhibit 6 news item extracts the provisions of Section 420 and Section 120b of the Indian Penal Code and makes a demand for punishing the plaintiffs for conspiracy and cheating under the said two sections of the Penal Code. Under such circumstances, the said news item cannot in our view be dismissed as mere banter, as has been claimed by the Executive Editor of the Meghalaya Guardian newspaper.
(13.) IN so far as the plaint non-referring to specific passages in the news reports, our view is that since the plaintiffs are aggrieved by the full report, particularly the third one published on 5. 9. 2003, their claim cannot be thrown out on that score and the appellants contentions are rejected accordingly.
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/> (14.) IN this case the plaintiffs have claimed Rs. 70,00,000/- (Rupees seventy lakhs) as damages under the head of loss of reputation. But we have already recorded that the plaintiffs have not produced any evidence to show in what manner and in whose esteem, they have suffered. Accordingly we see no justification for awarding any damage for alleged loss of reputation to the plaintiffs. (15.) IN so far as damages claimed on account of pain suffered by the plaintiffs, we feel that the plaintiffs are entitled for damage on this count, because of the grief and annoyance suffered by them, by the publication of the offending news reports. Accordingly, we hold that the plaintiffs are entitled to damage quantified at Rs. 5,00,000/- (Rupees five lakhs) for the pain, grief and annoyance suffered by them through the news reports and particularly the report published on 5. 9. 2003, in the Meghalaya Guardian published by the appellants. (16.) TOWARDS the claim of expenses for defence, we feel that a further sum of Rs. 25,000/- (Rupees twenty five thousands) may also be paid to the plaintiffs. (17.) CONSEQUENTLY, this appeal is partially allowed by modifying the impugned decree to the extent indicated above while ordering the parties to bear their own cost. (18.) LET a modified decree be drawn up accordingly.