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Press trio goes on defame offensive

New Delhi, Dec. 17: The Supreme Court today admitted a batch of writ petitions by three Chennai publications challenging the validity of Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, which provides for initiating defamation proceedings against publications.

A division bench of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and D.M. Dharmadhikari admitted the petitions by N. Ram, editor of The Hindu, and S. Balasubramanian and K. Rajendran, editors of Tamil weeklies Ananda Vikatan and Kalki, challenging the validity of Section 499 that makes the media liable for reporting on incidents involving those in the public domain.

The case assumes added significance after Mumbai's Mid Day was slapped a legal notice for publishing pictures of actors Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapur kissing at a public place. The incident found a mention during today's court proceedings.

Section 499 says: 'Whoever by words, either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm the reputation of such person is said to defame that person.'

This provision is often invoked by the rich and famous against those reporting their actions.

Senior counsel Harish Salve, appearing for The Hindu, argued that the provision making media liable for reporting could pose a major threat to the media's right to freedom of expression as VIPs could start defamation proceedings even if the reported incident had actually occurred.

The judges then asked if 'publishing a personality being kissed is in good taste'. 'Leave alone right to privacy or defamation... is it in good taste' they queried.

Saying 'good sense and taste' should be kept in mind, Justices Sabharwal and Dharmadhikari added: 'In the name of public good, the media can't go on doing whatever it intended to do.'

But now that the petitions have been admitted, the judges will hear arguments on this aspect of defamation, privacy and right to report and publish what the media terms the 'truth' and VIPs regard as an 'intrusion in privacy and defamation'.

Salve argued that the media had to report on VIPs in the public interest and suggested the aggrieved party first show to the court how his reputation had been tarnished even when the reported incident happened to be true.

The counsel said the court should consider the question of media reporting and privacy, and 'strike a balance' between public interest and defamation by settling the law once and for all.

The case will be taken up for arguments when the court resumes in the first week of January after the winter break.

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