1. This appeal has been filed by Vishan Swarup complainant against an order dated 28-2-1983 of the Special Magistrate, 1st Class, Meerut, acquitting the respondents Nardeo Shasiri and Deven-dra Kumar, Editor and joint Editor, respectively, of a daily newspaper entitled 'Janta-ki-Pukar' printed and published from Mawana, District Meerut, of offences under sections 501 and 502 of the Indian Penal Code.
2. The complainant was Lekhpal of Village Mewa during the months of April and May, 1980. His house and property was situate in Mawana where his family resided. In the issue o the Hindi Daily 'Janta-ki-Pukar' dated 24-4-1960 a news item from a correspondent was published which contained imputations against a Lekhpal (whose identity was not disclosed) to the effect that he (the Lekhpal) was in the habit of taking bribes from both parties in cases pending in the Court of Sri Dharam Singh Rawat, S. D. M., and Sri Mathur, Tahsildar, Mawana; that the officers concerned were reputed to be honest and appeared to be unaware of the doings of the Lekhpal. The correspondent hinted that the officers should take notice of the matter. In another issue of the same paper dated 29-4-1980 the correspondent of the paper listed various misdoings of Vishan Swarup Lekhpal of Village Mewa. Among the imputations made against the said Lekhpal by the correspondent were the following :
(1) That Vishan Swarup Lekhpal had started making reports at the police station in an irregular manner against his opponents in order to gain undue influence with the police.
(2) That the said Lekhpal did not reside in his Halka (village Mewa) but resided in Mawana.
(3) That he had been doing private business and was partner in a theka for catching fish in the Ganga river.
(4) That he had opened a taal of firewood in Mawana,
(5) That it was rumoured that the said Lekhpal had purchased sufficient immoveable property although he was getting only a small salary.
(6) That he had opened accounts in the Punjab National Bank,
(7) That there was a general talk in the public that the Lekhpal was addicted to bhang and sulfa.
3. A letter from a villager was also published in the issue of the said paper dated 1-5-1960 in which a demand was made for the investigation of the various alegations against Vishan Swarup Lekhpal by the C. I. D. of the U. P. Government. The letter stressed the fact that if the imputations against the Lekhpal were true they deserved thorough investigation. The writer demanded that the District Magistrate should suspend the Lekhpal and order an inquiry against him. The Editor of the paper added a footnote expressing his approval of the suggestions made in the letter.
4. On behalf of the complainant seven witnesses including himself, were examined in support of the prosecution case and on behalf of the accused-respondents 15 witnesses were examined to show that the imputations made against the character and public conduct of the Lekhpal were true and had been made in good faith and for the public good.
5. The learned Magistrate who tried the case came to the conclusion that all the facts mentioned in the news-items of the paper aforesaid may not have been correct, but it was clear that the respondent Nardeo Shastri had taken all possible care to ascertain the truth, of the facts before printing the same in his paper and that he, as well as the joint Editor Devendra Kumar, were protected as they had made the said publication in good faith and for the public good. He accordingly acquitted the two respondents and held them not guilty.
6. This appeal was originally heard by our brother Katju J. It appears to have been argued before him that the imputations which were the subject-matter of the charge could be gathered only by reading together the news items appearing in three different issues of the same paper and that it was not permissible for the complainant to cull together the various items of news in order to make out a case of defamation. The learned single Judge was of opinion that the question, involved in the case was of some importance and it was desirable that it should be decided by a larger bench. It is in these circumstances that this appeal has come before us.
7. The problem that was posed before the learned single Judge was whether a complainant could be allowed to join together news-items appearing in two or more issues of a newspaper in order to fix the identity of the person defamed. If the contents of the various items of news are more or less similar and relate to the same person, each one of them separately and collectively may form the subject of one charge. On the other hand, if the said publications deal with different allegations or aspersions in respect of the same person, each of them would form the subject of a separate charge and could not be considered as one transaction and combined at one trial. In the instant case there is no difficulty as to the identity of the person against whom the imputations were made in the issues dated 29-4-1960 and 1-5-1960 of the newspaper aforesaid. It will therefore, have to be considered whether the matter published in the said two issues was defamatory of the complainant or whether the comments appearing in the said issues were made in good faith and in the public interest and were, therefore, justified as fair comment in relation to the conduct of a public servant.
8. We may here make it clear that in the issue of the paper dated 24-4-1960 the identity of the Lekhpal against whom allegations of corrupt practice were made was not disclosed. So that it could not be said that the said allegations related to the conduct of the complainant. It was conceded that there were several Lekhpals in Mawana Circle, the complainant being one of them. By reading the news item in the issue of the paper dated 24-4-1960 no one would have inferred that the said imputations had reference to the conduct of the complainant. What was, therefore, printed and published in the said issue could not, in our opinion, be the subject-matter of legitimate complaint by the complainant. As regards the contents of the letter printed and published in the issue of the said paper dated 1-5-1960 the writer had not expressed a categorical opinion about the character and conduct of the complainant. All that was said about him was that if the allegations contained in the news item published in the said paper on 29-4-1960 were true it was highly expedient to institute an inquiry against the conduct of the Lekhpal. The views expressed in the letter aforesaid were endorsed by the editor at the footnote of the letter. In other words, the Editor also desired that an inquiry should be instituted against the Lekhpal complainant so that the truth of the imputations against the Lekhpal may be properly ascertained. We are, therefore, of opinion that neither in the news items dated 24-4-1960 nor in the communication dated 1-5-1960 was there anything which could be characterised as casting reflection on the complainant. The two publications in our opinion did not either individually or collectively constitute defamation of the complainant.
9. We proceed now to consider the charge with respect to the publication in the issue dated 29-4-1960. In the earlier part of this judgment we have set out the various imputations made therein against the character of the complainant. The complainant repudiated each of these allegations and stated that they were false and had been made out of malice. The defence examined a number of witnesses and also filed documents in support of the plea of justification and good faith. It was, for instance, proved that under the rules a Lekhpal was required to reside in his Halka along with his family and that he could reside outside the Halka only with the written permission of the Collector. The documentary evidence-in the shape of the voters' list of Mawana and the minutes of the proceedings of the Sanskrit Devnagari Vidyalya, Mawana established that the complainant had been residing in Mawana though under the rules he should have resided in village Mewa where he was posted as Lekhpal. A number of defence witnesses corroborated this fact and the learned Magistrate was satisfied that the allegation against the complainant that he was not residing in his Halka was fully established.
10. Another imputation against the complainant was that he was a partner in a contract of catching. fish and that fishes were sent to Meerut and Aligarh in the truck of one Bharat Singh. Mohammad Anis D. W. 3 gave details of the Theka and stated that he along with the complainant and two others was a partner in the Theka during the years 1959 and 1960. He further stated that each of the partners had deposited a sum of Rs. 500/- and the complainant had given a cheque of Rs. 500/- on the Punjab National Bank in that connection. The defence examined Gopi Chand D. W. 11, an employee of the Punjab National Bank, to prove that that the complainant had issued a cheque of Rs. 500/- on the Punjab National Bank during the relevant period and that the various amounts had been deposited by the complainant in the said bank which according to the defence represented the profits earned from the said business. The learned Magistrate believed the defence evidence and held that the complainant was a partner in the contract of sale of fish. We endorse the finding of the Magistrate on this point.
11. Another allegation was that the complainant had opened a wood stall in Mawana which was in violation of the rules governing the appointment of Lekhpals. Mohammad Abbas D. W. 6 deposed that the complainant was a partner in the fuel business and used to invest money and make profit out of that business. The Post Office Savings Bank Account of the complainant disclosed considerable bank balance during the relevant period. The complainant could not give a satisfactory explanation for the various amounts deposited by him in the Post Office. From all this it is clear that he was carrying on private business in partnership with others against the service rules and was thus infringing the mandatory provisions of law. It is also apparent from the deposits in the Post Office Savings Bank Account and the Punjab National Bank that his earnings were disproportionate to his known and legitimate sources of income.
12. It was admitted by the complainant that he had an account in the Punjab National Bank which disclosed a considerable credit balance in his favour. According to the complainant himself he owned a house at Mawana where his family used to reside. He pleaded ignorance as to whether a portion of the house had been let out to tenants and was fetching income to him. One of the imputations in the publication aforesaid was that the Lekhpal had acquired! considerable immovable property. As a statement of fact this was perhaps an exaggeration. The evidence on the record, however, goes to show that the Lekhpal had been making money and acquiring property in a manner which could not be considered legitimate. Under these circumstances the said allegations could not be said to be unjustified.
13. Stress was laid by the learned counsel on the impropriety of an allegation which was to the effect that the Lekhpal was in the habit of harassing his opponents with the help of the police. It was urged that there was no truth in this imputation. The defence witness Om Prakash stated that there was litigation between him and the mother of the Lekhpal and that the latter (the complainant) had used his good offices with the police to overawe him. There is nothing to disbelieve this statement. The allegation. even if crude, was not wholly beside the truth. In any case, there was no suggestion in the offending publication that the reports made by the Lekhpal were false. Consequently, there was no reasonable round to hold that the imputation ' in question was defamatory.
14. Yet another allegation which it was said to be defamatory of the complainant was in respect to the statement that the Lekhpal was addicted to taking bhang and smoking sulfa. A fair reading of the offending news item goes to show that what the writer meant to convey was that the people were openly saying that the Lekhpal was given to taking bhang and smoking sulfa. In support of the defence case evidence was led to show that Sri D. S. Rawat, Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Mawana had conducted a raid and recovered some dried plants of bhang from the room occupied by a number of Lekhpals of Mawana. In the course of the raid the incriminating articles were said to have been recovered from near the basta of the complainant in his presence. The complainant did not deny the recovery of the articles in question but repudiated that the same were recovered in his presence.
The cross-examination of the complainant, however, revealed that he must have been present in Mawana on the date of the raid for no explanation was offered by the Lekhpal for his absence from village Mawana on that date The learned Magistrate had pointed out that although the complainant had cited Sarvasri D. S. Rawat, S. D. M., and Mathur Tahsildar as prosecution witnesses in the list of witnesses submitted by him he failed to examine any of those officers, which would go to indicate that he was afraid that the truth might see the light of day. The fact of recovery of bhang was deposed to by Nizammuddin D. W. 7 and it could not, therefore, be said that the imputation made in the offending writing was defamatory. The circumstances of the case disclosed that on the basis of information received from some reliable source the S. D, M. raided the premises and recovered bhang from a room in the occupation of the complainant and other Lekhpals. From these facts the inference drawn by the respondents about the undesirable habits of the complainant could not be regarded as unreasonable or unjustified. Under these circumstances the allegations made in the news items aforesaid would fall within the category of fair comment and would be protected.
15. The doctrine of fair comment is based on the hypothesis that the publication in question is one which, broadly speaking, is true in fact, and is not made to satisfy a personal vendetta; and further that the facts stated therein are such as would go to serve the pulic interest. In England the law of fair comment has been stated thus :
'The defence of fair comment requires that the material fact or facts on which the comment or criticism is based should be truly stated and be a matter of public interest, the comment on fact or facts should be fair within the wide limits which the law allows;...... A statement of fact though reflecting on another may be justified ...... the comment must not misstate facts; because a comment cannot be fair which is built upon facts not truly stated and if defendant cannot show that his criticism contains no, or no material mis-statement of facts, he will fail in his defence of fair comment. A material mis-statement of any of the facts on which comment is made, negatives the possibility of the comment being fair.' (Halsbury, III, Edition Vol. 24, pp. 70 to 74).
16. A journalist possesses no higher right than an ordinary citizen has in respect of the freedom of speech. At the same time, by virtue of the special character of his profession the journalist owes certain duties to the public, the most important of which is the dissemination of news and views fully and truly expressed on matters affecting the public good. In so far as he does that he serves a social purpose for by exposing the evils of the community or its servants to the public gaze he seeks to create a climate of opinion for their eradication. A newspaper editor, therefore, acts within his legitimate sphere when he offers criticism of what he considers and bona fide believes to be for the good of the community. But he is not protected if under the garb of criticism he employs language calculated to defame or degrade the character of a public servant or a private citizen. In order to pass the test of fair comment the publication must be free from malice and made bona fide and in public interest. Mere exaggeration or inaccuracy in matters of details does not make a comment unfair so long as what is expressed therein is materially true and for public benefit.
17. In Surajmal B. Mehta v. B. Horniman, AIR 1917 Bom 62 (SB) the Court observed as follows :
'Where a journalist is bound to comment on public questions with care, reason and judgment he is not necessarily deprived of his privilege merely because there are slight unimportant deviations from. absolute accuracy of statement, where these deviations do not affect the general fairness of the comment. The articles must be considered rather in their entirety than by separate instances of isolated passages, and the court must decide what impression would be produced on the mind of an unprejudiced reader who knowing nothing of the matter beforehand read the matter straight through.'
18. Judged by this test it seems to us that the imputations contained in the news item dated 29-4-1960 could not be considered defamatory of the complainant. The evidence adduced on behalf of the respondents clearly established that the conduct of the complainant as a public servant was unworthy and that he had committed breach of service rules not only in the matter of his residence but also in regard to his engaging himself in business. The evidence further established that the complainant had acquired wealth which was far disproportionate to his legitimate sources of income. He had falsely denied having entered into partnership in business and also having sufficient credit balance in the Post Office and the Bank. Under these circumstances the imputations contained in the news item complained of were in our opinion justified The order of the learned Magistrate acquitting the respondents of the offences with which they were charged was, therefore, eminently just.
19. We see no force in this appeal and it is accordingly dismissed.