Freedom Of Speech Essential For Media Platforms: Supreme Court

On March 22, 2024, a 3 (three) judge bench of the Supreme Court passed an order1 reiterating the importance of freedom of speech and expression...
India Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
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On March 22, 2024, a 3 (three) judge bench of the Supreme Court passed an order1 reiterating the importance of freedom of speech and expression, granted by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, in relation to articles published by media platforms.

The order was pursuant to a suit filed by Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (“Zee“) against Bloomberg Television Production Services India Private Limited (“Bloomberg“) in relation to an article titled ‘India Regulator Uncovers $ 241 Million Accounting Issue at Zee‘ (“Article“) published on Bloomberg's website on February 21, 2024. The Article discussed the status of the Zee-Sony merger and the ongoing investigation of Zee carried out by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (“SEBI“). Zee, aggrieved by the Article, filed a suit for permanent injunction and prayed for it to be removed from the Bloomberg website. Zee contended that the Article was defamatory, asserting that it was published with malicious intent to defame Zee and also alleged that the contents of the Article directly pertained to corporate governance and business operations of the Zee and speculated the contents as truth. Zee also argued that following the publication of the Article, Zee and its investors experienced significant economic losses, as the stock price of Zee fell by almost 15% (fifteen percent) because of the circulation of defamatory material.

The Additional District Judge of the trial court (“ADJ“) was of the view that Zee had made out a prima facie case for passing ad interim ex-parte order of injunction and that the balance of convenience was also in favour of Zee. The ADJ held that irreparable loss and injury would be caused to Zee if the injunction as prayed for was not granted. Resultantly, the ADJ directed that the Article be taken down from the online platform within 1 (one) week of receipt of the order and further restrained Bloomberg from posting, circulating or publishing the Article on any online platform or offline platform till the next date of hearing.

The order of the ADJ was thereafter upheld by the Delhi High Court (“Delhi HC“) on March 14, 2024 basis the reasoning that the ADJ had taken into consideration the relevant factors for the purpose of granting the ex-parte ad-interim injunction and had satisfied himself that prima facie there was enough material for the purpose of granting an ex-parte ad-interim injunction. The Delhi HC directed Bloomberg to comply with the directions of the ADJ's orders within 3 (three) days.

Bloomberg appealed the order of the Delhi HC and as a result of this appeal, the Supreme Court set aside the orders of both the ADJ and the Delhi HC, emphasizing that while the three-fold test of establishing (i) prima facie case; (ii) balance of convenience; and (iii) irreparable loss or harm is applicable to the grant of interim injunctions in defamation suits, this three-fold test should not be applied rigidly to the detriment of the other party. This approach, especially concerning injunction against journalistic pieces could harm the public interest. The Supreme Court stated that when granting interim relief, the court must offer detailed reasons and analyze how the three-fold test is satisfied.

The Supreme Court also highlighted certain additional factors that courts should consider while granting an ex-parte interim injunction and stated that, in defamation suits involving media platforms or journalists, there should be a careful balance between the fundamental right to free speech and the right to reputation and privacy. The Supreme Court, referring to the ‘Bonnard Standard', which has acquired the status of a common law principle for the grant of interim injunctions in defamation suits, stressed the importance of upholding the constitutional mandate of protecting journalistic expression and urged courts to exercise caution when considering pre-trial interim injunctions.

Commenting on the ADJ's order, the Supreme Court observed that the ad-interim injunction granted by the ADJ, did not even briefly consider the merits of the plaint, amounting to unreasoned censorship which cannot be permitted.

The Supreme Court found that, “the grant of a pre-trial injunction against the publication of an article may have severe ramifications on the right to freedom of speech of the author and the public's right to know. An injunction, particularly ex-parte, should not be granted without establishing that the content sought to be restricted is ‘malicious' or ‘palpably false'. Granting interim injunctions, before the trial commences, in a cavalier manner results in the stifling of public debate. In other words, courts should not grant ex-parte injunctions except in exceptional cases where the defence advanced by the respondent would undoubtedly fail at trial. In all other cases, injunctions against the publication of material should be granted only after a full-fledged trial is conducted or in exceptional cases, after the respondent is given a chance to make their submissions“.

The Supreme Court asserted that granting pre-trial interim injunctions, even before the allegations have been proven, often acts as a ‘death sentence' to material sought to be published. Additionally, the Supreme Court highlighted that in defamation suits the possibility of using protracted litigation to inhibit free speech and public participation should be considered by the courts. While reiterating the importance of the three-fold test, the Supreme Court has stated that merely recording that a prima facie case exists, that the balance of convenience is in favour of the grant of injunction and that an irreparable injury would be caused, would not amount to an application of mind to the facts of the case. The three-fold test cannot merely be reiterated without making a determination on the basis of the facts and circumstances of each case.

The Supreme Court set aside the orders of the ADJ and the Delhi HC and stated that Zee could renew their application for injunction, which should be considered by the ADJ basis the observations of the Supreme Court.


1. Bloomberg Television Production Services India Private Limited & Ors. vs. Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited, Special Leave to Appeal (C) No. 6696/2024.

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