IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CRIMINAL APPELLATE JURISDICTION
CRIMINAL APPEAL NO.2059 OF 2017
(Arising out of Special Leave to Appeal (Crl.) No.1741 of 2017)
Mohammed Abdulla Khan … Appellant
Prakash K. … Respondent
J U D G M E N T
1. Leave granted.
2. The sole respondent is admittedly the owner of a Kannada
Daily Newspaper by name “Jaya Kirana” published from
Mangalore, Karnataka. On 16.12.2013, the said newspaper
carried a news item containing certain allegations against the
appellant herein. According to the appellant, the allegations are
highly defamatory in nature.
3. The appellant lodged a report with the Panambur Police,
Mangalore, Dakshina Kannada District on 17.12.2013 against
the respondent and another person who was editor of the
abovementioned newspaper. Police did not take any action.
Thereafter, the appellant filed a private complaint against the
respondent and the editor of the abovementioned newspaper
before the J.M.F.C.-II, Mangalore in PCR No.24/2014 which
eventually came to be numbered as CC No.1252 of 2014. The
learned Magistrate took cognizance of the matter on 15.04.2014
for the offences punishable under Section 500, 501 and 502 of
the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
4. Aggrieved by the order dated 15.04.2014, the respondent
carried the matter in Revision Petition No.219 of 2014 before the
Sessions Judge, Dakshina Kannada, Mangalore. By the order
dated 06.11.2015, the respondent’s revision was dismissed.
Respondent further carried the matter in Criminal Petition
No.8679 of 2015 to the Karnataka High Court invoking Section
482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. By an order dated
23.11.2016, the said petition was allowed and the proceedings in
CC No.1252 of 2014, insofar as they pertained to the respondent,
5. Both in his revision as well as the petition under Section
482 Cr.P.C., the respondent urged various grounds which
according to him render the order dated 15.04.2014 illegal. The
details of those various grounds are not necessary for our
6. The judgment under appeal is very cryptic. The first three
paragraphs of the judgment under appeal (running into a short
one and a half page) purport to take note of only one submission
of the respondent.
“Para 2. The learned Counsel for the petitioner would point out
that there can be no vicarious liability insofar as the criminal
law is concerned. The complainant’s allegation of the
defamatory material published in the newspaper against him,
even if it is established, can only be sustained against the editor
of the newspaper and not the owner of the newspaper. The
petitioner admittedly was the owner. The newspaper carries a
legend that the newspaper is edited and published on behalf of
the petitioner and there is no dispute in this regard.”
7. It appears from the judgment under appeal that the
appellant herein argued that in view of the law laid down in K.M.
Mathew v. K.A. Abraham, (2002) 6 SCC 670 the respondent’s
objection could not be sustained. High Court rejected the
submission of the appellant.
“Para 3. Though the learned Counsel for the respondent would
seek to contend that the question is no longer res integra and is
covered by a judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of K.M.
Mathew vs. K.A. Abraham, AIR 2002 SC 2989, it is however
noticed that the said decision was in respect of a managing
editor, resident editor or a chief editor of respective newspaper
publications, who were parties therein.”
The learned Judge recorded that the judgment in K M Mathew’s
case could be distinguished and, therefore, opined that the
respondent’s petition is required to be allowed.
“Para 3. … Therefore, at the outset, it can be said that the said
case could be distinguished from the case on hand, as, the
petitioner is not claiming as an editor, who had any role in the
publication of the newspaper. Therefore, it is a fit case where
the petition should be allowed.”
It is unfortunate that the High Court did not choose to give any
reason whatsoever for quashing the complaint except a grand
declaration that “it would lead to a miscarriage of justice”.
“Accordingly, though the criminal proceedings can go on against
the editor of the newspaper, the petitioner cannot be proceeded
with, as it would lead to a miscarriage of justice.”
Hence, the appeal.
8. Before us the appellant appeared in person. Inspite of the
service of notice, the respondent neither chose to appear in
person nor through a counsel. In view of the fact that a
substantial question of law is involved in the matter, we thought
it appropriate to request Shri M.N. Rao, learned Senior Advocate
to assist the Court in this matter.
9. Heard Shri M.N. Rao, learned Senior Advocate for the
10. Section 499 IPC defines the offence of defamation. It
contains 10 exceptions and 4 explanations. The relevant portion
“Section 499. Defamation.— 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, except in the cases hereinafter expected, to defame that
11. An analysis of the above reveals that to constitute an
offence of defamation it requires a person to make some
imputation concerning any other person;
(i) Such imputation must be made either
(a) With intention, or
(b) Knowledge, or
(c) Having a reason to believe
that such an imputation will harm the reputation of the person
against whom the imputation is made.
(ii) Imputation could be, by
(a) Words, either spoken or written, or
(b) By making signs, or
(c) Visible representations
(iii) Imputation could be either made or published.
The difference between making of an imputation and
publishing the same is:
If ‘X’ tells ‘Y’ that ‘Y’ is a criminal – ‘X’ makes an imputation.
If ‘X’ tells ‘Z’ that ‘Y’ is a criminal – ‘X’ publishes the
The essence of publication in the context of Section 499 is
the communication of defamatory imputation to persons other
than the persons against whom the imputation is made.1
12. Committing any act which constitutes defamation under
Section 499 IPC is punishable offence under Section 500 IPC.
Printing or engraving any defamatory material is altogether a
different offence under Section 501 IPC. Offering for sale or
selling any such printed or engraved defamatory material is yet
another distinct offence under Section 502 IPC.
Khima Nand v. Emperor , (1937) 38 Cri LJ 806 (All); Amar Singh v. K.S. Badalia, (1965) 2 Cri LJ 693 (Pat)
13. If the content of any news item carried in a newspaper is
defamatory as defined under Section 499 IPC, the mere printing
of such material “knowing or having good reason to believe that
such matter is defamatory” itself constitutes a distinct offence
under Section 501 IPC. The sale or offering for sale of such
printed “substance containing defamatory matter” “knowing that
it contains such matter” is a distinct offence under Section 502
14. Whether an accused (such as the respondent) against whom
a complaint is registered under various Sections of the IPC
(Sections 500, 501 & 502 IPC) could be convicted for any of those
offences depends upon the evidence regarding the existence of
the facts relevant to constitute those offences.
15. In the context of the facts of the present case, first of all, it
must be established that the matter printed and offered for sale
is defamatory within the meaning of the expression under Section
499 IPC. If so proved, the next step would be to examine the
question whether the accused committed the acts which
constitute the offence of which he is charged with the requisite
intention or knowledge etc. to make his acts culpable.
16. Answer to the question depends upon the facts. If the
respondent is the person who either made or published the
defamatory imputation, he would be liable for punishment under
Section 500 IPC. If he is the person who “printed” the matter
within the meaning of the expression under Section 501 IPC.
Similarly to constitute an offence under Section 502 IPC, it must
be established that the respondent is not only the owner of the
newspaper but also sold or offered the newspaper for sale.
17. We must make it clear that for the acts of printing or selling
or offering to sell need not only be the physical acts but include
the legal right to sell i.e. to transfer the title in the goods – the
newspaper. Those activities if carried on by people, who are
employed either directly or indirectly by the owner of the
newspaper, perhaps render all of them i.e., the owner, the
printer, or the person selling or offering for sale liable for the
offences under Sections 501 or 502 IPC, (as the case may be) if
the other elements indicated in those Sections are satisfied.
18. Whether the content of the appellant’s complaint constitutes
an offence punishable under any one or all or some of the
abovementioned sections was not examined by the High Court for
quashing the complaint against the respondent. So we need not
trouble ourselves to deal with that question. We presume for the
purpose of this appeal that the content of the appellant’s
complaint does disclose the facts necessary to establish the
commission of one or all of the offences mentioned above.
Whether there is sufficient evidence to establish the guilt of the
respondent for any one of the abovementioned three offences is a
matter that can be examined only after recording evidence at the
time of trial. That can never be a subject matter of a proceeding
under Section 482 Cr.P.C.
19. From the judgment under appeal, it appears that before the
High Court it was argued on behalf of the respondent that there
is no vicarious liability in criminal law and therefore the owner of
a newspaper cannot be prosecuted for the offences of defamation.
“2. The learned counsel for the petitioner would point out that
there can be no vicarious liability insofar as the criminal law is
concerned. The complainant’s allegation of the defamatory
material published in the newspaper against him, even if it is
established, can only be sustained against the editor of the
newspaper and not the owner of the newspaper. The petitioner
admittedly was the owner. The newspaper carries a legend that
the newspaper is edited and published on behalf of the petitioner
and there is no dispute in this regard.”
20. It appears from para 3 of the judgment that the appellant
herein submitted in response to the above extracted contention of
the respondent that the question is no longer res integra and is
covered by a judgment of this Court in K.M. Mathew v. K.A.
Abraham & Others.
The High Court rejected the submission holding:
“…….it is however noticed that the said decision was in respect
of a managing editor, resident editor or a chief editor of
respective newspaper publications, who were parties therein.
Therefore, at the outset, it can be said that the said case could
be distinguished from the case on hand, as, the petitioner is
not claiming as an editor, who had any role in the publication
of the newspaper. Therefore, it is a fit case where the petition
should be allowed.”
The High Court concluded that prosecution of the respondent
would lead to miscarriage of justice. A conclusion without any
discussion and without disclosing any principle which forms the
basis of the conclusion.
FACTS, ISSUE & RATIO DECIDENDI OF K.M. MATHEW’S CASE:
21. K.M. Mathew was the “Chief Editor” of a daily called
Malayalam Manorama. When he was sought to be prosecuted for
the offence of defamation, he approached the High Court under
Section 482 Cr.P.C. praying that the prosecution be quashed on
the ground that Section 7 of the Press and Registration of Books
Act, 1867 only permits the prosecution of the Editor but not the
Chief Editor. The High Court rejected the submission.
(2002) 6 SCC 670
22. Even before this Court, the same submission was made.
This Court rejected the submission holding:
“16. The contention of these appellants is not tenable. There
is no statutory immunity for the Chief Editor against any
prosecution for the alleged publication of any matter in the
newspaper over which these persons exercise control.”
It was further held that though the presumption under Section 7
of the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 is not applicable
to somebody whose name is printed in the newspaper as the
Chief Editor, the complainant can still allege and prove that
persons other than the Editor, if they are responsible for the
publication of the defamatory material.
“20. The provisions contained in the Act clearly go to show that
there could be a presumption against the Editor whose name is
printed in the newspaper to the effect that he is the Editor of
such publication and that he is responsible for selecting the
matter for publication. Though, a similar presumption cannot
be drawn against the Chief Editor, Resident Editor or Managing
Editor, nevertheless, the complainant can still allege and prove
that they had knowledge and they were responsible for the
publication of the defamatory news item. Even the presumption
under Section 7 is a rebuttable presumption and the same could
be proved otherwise. That by itself indicates that somebody
other than editor can also be held responsible for selecting the
matter for publication in a newspaper.”
23. K.M. Mathew’s case has nothing to do with the question of
vicarious liability. The argument in K.M. Mathew’s case was
that in view of Section 7 of the Press and Registration of Books
The contention of the appellants in these cases is that they had not been shown as Editors in these publications
and that their names were printed either as Chief Editor, Managing Editor or Resident Editor and not as “Editor”
and there cannot be any criminal prosecution against them for the alleged libellous publication of any matter in
that newspaper. [Para 15 of K.M. Mathew’s case]
Act, 1867 only the Editor of a newspaper could be prosecuted for
defamation. Such a submission was rejected holding that Section
7 does not create any immunity in favour of persons other than
the Editor of a newspaper. It only creates a rebuttable
presumption that the person whose name is shown as the editor
of the newspaper is responsible for the choice and publication of
the material in the newspaper. K.M. Mathew’s case made it
clear that if a complaint contains allegations (which if proved
would constitute defamation), person other than the one who is
declared to be the editor of the newspapers can be prosecuted if
they are alleged to be responsible for the publication of such
The High Court, in our opinion, without examining the ratio
of K.M. Mathew’s case chose to conclude that the decision is
distinguishable. The judgment of the High Court is absolutely
unstructured leaving much to be desired.
24. Vicarious liability for a crime is altogether a different matter.
In England, at one point of time, the owner of a newspaper was
held to be vicariously liable for an offence of defamation (libel).
The history of law in this regard is succinctly stated by Lord
Cockburn in The Queen v. Holbrook.
4 Though there appears to
be some modification of the law subsequent to the enactment of
Lord Campbell’s Act i.e. the Libel Act 1843 (6&7 Vict C 96).
Lord Campbell’s Act did not apply to India. The Press and
Registration of Books Act (Act XXV of 1867) is made applicable to
British India and continues to be in force by virtue of the
declaration under Article 372 of the Constitution of India. There
are material differences between the scheme and tenor of both
the enactments. In Ramasami v. Lokanada, (1886) ILR 9 Mad
692, it was held:
“… But we cannot hold that the provisions of that Statute (Ed.
Lord Campbell’s Act) are applicable to this country, and we must
determine whether the accused is or is not guilty of defamation
with reference to the provisions of the Indian Penal Code. We
consider that it would be a sufficient answer to the charge in this
country if the accused showed that he entrusted in good faith the
temporary management of the newspaper to a competent person
during his absence, and that the libel was published without his
authority, knowledge or consent. As the Judge has, however,
misapprehended the effect of Act XXV of 1867, we shall set aside
the order of acquittal made by him and direct him to restore the
appeal to his file, to consider the evidence produced by the
accused and then to dispose of the appeal with reference to the
and reiterated in Emperor v. Bodi Narayana Rao and G.
Harisarvothama Rao, (1909) ILR 32 Mad 338:
“Lord Campbell’s Act, of course, is not in force in India, and the
Criminal Law of England is not necessarily the same as the
Criminal Law of India as contained in the Indian Penal Code …”
L.R. 3 QBD 60
25. The extent of the applicability of the principle of vicarious
liability in criminal law particularly in the context of the offences
relating to defamation are neither discussed by the High Court in
the judgment under appeal nor argued before us because the
respondent neither appeared in person nor through any
advocate. Therefore, we desist from examining the question in
detail. But we are of the opinion that the question requires a
serious examination in an appropriate case because the owner of
a newspaper employs people to print, publish and sell the
newspaper to make a financial gain out of the said activity. Each
of the abovementioned activities is carried on by persons
employed by the owner.
26. Where defamatory matter is printed (in a newspaper or a
book etc.) and sold or offered for sale, whether the owner thereof
can be heard to say that he cannot be made vicariously liable for
the defamatory material carried by his newspaper etc. requires a
27. Each case requires a careful scrutiny of the various
questions indicated above. Neither prosecutions nor the power
under Section 482 CrPC can be either conducted or exercised
casually as was done in the case on hand.
28. The judgment under appeal cannot be sustained for the
reasons indicated above. The same is, therefore, set-aside and
the appeal is allowed. The trial court will now proceed with the
case in accordance with law.
(S. ABDUL NAZEER)
December 4, 2017