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RIGHT TO PUBLISH A LIFE STORY / AUTOBIOGRAPHY

R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 1995 SC 264: (1994)6 SCC 632: (1995) 2 SCJ 86

Facts
The first petitioner is the editor, printer and publisher of a Tamil weekly magazine Nakkheeran, published from Madras. The second petitioner is the associate editor of the magazine. They are seeking issuance of an appropriate writ, order or direction under article 32 of the Constitution, restraining the respondents, viz., (1) State of Tamil Nadu represented by the Secretary, Home Department, (2) Inspector-General of Prisons, Madras, and (3) Superintendent of Prisons (Central Prison), Salem, Tamil Nadu from taking any action as contemplated in the second respondent’s communication dated 15-6-1994 and further restraining them from interfering with the publication of the autobiography of the condemned prisoner, Auto Shankar, in their magazine.

Shankar alias Gauri Shankar alias Auto Shankar was charged and tried for as many as six murders. He was convicted and sentenced to death by the learned Sessions Judge, Chenglepat on 31-5-1991 which was confirmed by the Madras High Court on

17-7-1992. His appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed on 5-4-1994. His mercy petition to the President of India is pending consideration.

The petitioners have come forward with the following case: Auto Shankar wrote his autobiography running into 300 pages while confined in Chenglepat sub-jail during the year 1991. The autobiography was handed over by him to his wife, Smt. Jagdishwari, with the knowledge and approval of the jail authorities, for being delivered to his advocate, Chandrasekharan. The prisoner requested his advocate to ensure that his autobiography is published in the petitioners’ magazine, Nakkheeran. The petitioners agreed to the same. Auto Shankar affirmed this desire in several letters written to his advocate and the first petitioner. The autobiography sets out the close nexus between the prisoner and several IAS, IPS and other officers, some of whom were indeed his partners in several crimes. The presence of several such officers at the house-warming ceremony of Auto Shankar’s house is proved by the video cassette and several photographs taken on the occasion. Before commencing the serial publication of the autobiography in their magazine, the petitioners announced in the issue dated 21-5-1994 that very soon the magazine would be coming out with the sensational life history of Auto Shankar. This announcement sent shock waves among several police and prison officials who were afraid that their links with the condemned prisoner would be exposed. They forced the said prisoner, by applying third degree methods, to write letters addressed to the second respondent (Inspector-General of Prisons) and the first petitioner requesting that his life story should not be published in the magazine. Certain correspondence ensued between the petitioners and the prison authorities in this connection. Ultimately, the Inspector-General of Prisons wrote the impugned letter dated 15-6-1994 to the first petitioner. The letter states that the petitioner’s assertion that Auto Shankar had written his autobiography while confined in jail in the year 1991 is false. It is equally false that the said autobiography was handed over by the said prisoner to his wife with the knowledge and approval of the prison authorities. The prisoner has himself denied writing of any such book. It is equally false that any power of attorney was executed by the said prisoner in favour of his advocate, Shri Chandrasekharan in connection with the publication of the alleged book. If a prisoner has to execute a power-of-attorney in favour of another, it has to be done in the presence of the prison officials as required by the prison rules; the prison records do not bear out execution of any such power of attorney.

Issues


On the pleadings in this petition, following questions arise:

(1) Whether a citizen of this country can prevent another person from writing his life story or biography? Does such unauthorised writing infringe the citizen’s right to privacy? Whether the freedom of press guaranteed by article 19(1)(a) entitles the press to publish such unauthorised account of a citizen’s life and activities and if so to what extent and in what circumstances? What are the remedies open to a citizen of this country in case of infringement of his right to privacy and further in case such writing amount to defamation?

(2) Whether the Government can maintain an action for its defamation?

(3) Whether the Government has any legal authority to impose prior restraint on the press to prevent publication of material defamatory of its officials? and

(4) Whether the public officials, who apprehend that they or their colleagues may be defamed, can impose a prior restraint upon the press to prevent such publication?

Judgment


The right to privacy is implicit in the right to life and liberty guaranteed to the citizens of this country by article 21. It is a “right to be let alone”. A citizen has a right to safeguard the privacy of his own, his family, marriage, procreation, motherhood, child-bearing and education among other matters. None can publish anything concerning the above matters without his consent – whether truthful or otherwise and whether laudatory or critical. If he does so, he would be violating the right to privacy of the person concerned and would be liable in an action for damages. Position may, however, be different, if a person voluntarily thrusts himself into controversy or voluntarily invites or raises a controversy.

The rule aforesaid is subject to the exception, that any publication concerning the aforesaid aspects becomes unobjectionable if such publication is based upon public records including court records. This is for the reason that once a matter becomes a matter of public record, the right to privacy no longer subsists and it becomes a legitimate subject for comment by press and media among others. However, in the interests of decency [Article 19(2)] an exception must be carved out to this rule, viz., a female who is the victim of a sexual assault, kidnap, abduction or a like offence should not further be subjected to the indignity of her name and the incident being publicised in press/media.

There is yet another exception to the rule in (1) above – indeed, this is not an exception but an independent rule. In the case of public officials, it is obvious, right to privacy, or for that matter, the remedy of action for damages is simply not available with respect to their acts and conduct relevant to the discharge of their official duties. This is so even where the publication is based upon facts and statements which are not true, unless the official establishes that the publication was made (by the defendant) with reckless disregard for truth. In such a case, it would be enough for the defendant (member of the press or media) to prove that he acted after a reasonable verification of the facts; it is not necessary for him to prove that what he has written is true. Of course, where the publication is proved to be false and actuated by malice or personal animosity, the defendant would have no defence and would be liable for damages. It is equally obvious that in matters not relevant to the discharge of his duties, the public official enjoys the same protection as any other citizen, as explained in (1) and (2) above. It needs no reiteration that judiciary, which is protected by the power to punish for Contempt of Court and Parliament and Legislatures protected as their privileges are by Articles 105 and 104 respectively of the Constitution of India, represent exceptions to this rule.

So far as the Government, local authority and other organs and institutions exercising governmental power are concerned, they cannot maintain a suit for damages for defaming them. Rules 3 and 4 do not, however, mean that Official Secrets Act, 1923, or any similar enactment or provision having the force of law does not bind the press or media. There is no law empowering the State or its officials to prohibit, or to impose a prior restraint upon the press/media.

The principles above mentioned are only the broad principles. They are neither exhaustive nor all-comprehending; indeed no such enunciation is possible or advisable. As rightly pointed out by Mathew, J., this right has to go through a case-by-case development. The concepts dealt with herein are still in the process of evolution.

In all this discussion, the Court has not gone into the impact of article 19(1)(a) read with

clause (2) thereof on sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. That may have to await a proper case.

Held


The petitioners have a right to publish, what they allege to be the life story/autobiography of Auto Shankar insofar as it appears from the public records, even without his consent or authorisation. But if they go beyond that and publish his life story, they may be invading his right to privacy and will be liable for the consequences in accordance with law. Similarly, the State or its officials cannot prevent or restrain the said publication. The remedy of the affected public officials/public figures, if any, is after the publication, as explained hereinabove.

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