Life Insurance Company vs. Manubhai D Shah
Authored By- Tanvi Gupta
Keywords: Right to Know, Right to Express, and Right to reply
Name of the Case: Life Insurance Company vs. Manubhai D Shah
Equivalent Citation: 1993 AIR 171 1992 SCR (3) 595 1992 SCC (3) 637 JT 1992 (4) 181 1992 SCALE (2)60
Name of the Parties:
Bench: Ahmadi, A.M. (J), Punchhi, M.M.
Court: Supreme Court of India
Freedom of speech is a god’s gift to express oneself and is a basic human right. This right has been recognized by UDHR and the Indian constitution time and again. Over the years, this right has broadened and the right to the press has been upheld. The right to speech also includes to right to express, the right to know, and the right to reply. This Landmark judgment discusses the important question of Law.
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as great well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. Indian courts have time and again upheld the Right to Freedom of speech and expression enshrined under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution as a natural right which a human being acquires on birth. This right includes the right to express and put forward views along with the right to reply. The judgment at hand tried to bring harmony among the freedom of speech and press.
Background of the Case:
This case pertains to the Fundamental right of ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’ explicitly discussing ‘Right of Press’ and ‘Right to Know and reply’. This means a right to express one’s opinions by the medium of words, writing, pictures, or any suitable manner. This case arose after the refusal of LIC to publish a response sent by Prof. Manubhai Shah, an executive trustee of Consumer Education and Research Centre, Ahmedabad. He undertook in-depth research on the working of Life Insurance Corporation and wrote a detailed paper titled “A fraud on policyholders: a shocking story” throwing light on the discriminatory and unwelcomed activities undertaken by LIC which adversely affected the interest of a large number of holders. The primary idea was to point out that unduly high premiums were charged by the LIC from those taking out life insurance policies thereby refuting access to insurance coverage to a vast majority of people who cannot afford to pay the high premiums.
A paper titled “A fraud on Policyholders – a shocking story” was firstly published in the Newspaper “The Hindu”. Subsequently, a counter-response to a paper was published by the member of LIC titled “LIC and its policyholders” in The Hindu challenging the conclusion drawn by Manu B. Shah, the respondent in his study paper. Following this publication, a rejoinder titled “Raw deal for Policy Holders” by the respondent was published in the newspaper.
Looking at the situation at hand, the Director of LIC published its member's counter article in their magazine ‘Yogakshema’. Knowing about the publication, the respondent requests LIC to publish his rejoinder ‘Raw deal for Policyholders’ in their magazine to present a complete picture to the readers to conclude. This demand on Prof. Manu Bhai Shah was rejected by LIC claiming that their magazine was an in-house magazine limited to their subscribers who were policyholders, officers, employees, and agents of the corporation and not for the sale to the general public.
The writ petition was filed by the respondent in the Gujrat High Court where the court decided that LIC comes under the ambit of ‘The State’. Furthermore, the corporation cannot misguide the public and refuse publication of the article to the respondent under the guise of the in-house magazine. The court also stated that it cannot be referred to as an in-house magazine as it is available to any member of the public on payment of subscription and articles can also be contributed by them. The court emphasized that this action is violative of Article 14 and 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.
Against this decision of the Gujarat High Court, an appeal was filed before the Supreme Court of India.
Whether or not the refusal to publish rejoinder violative of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 14 and 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution?
The Landmark Judgement given by the Hon’ble court, in this case, upheld Gujrat High Court’s decision and recognized people's rights as a constitutional right. The petitioner contended before the Hon’ble Court that it is an editorial privilege under freedom of speech and expression to refuse rejoinder to the Article. However, the court held it to be unfair and unreasonable as it failed at showcasing both the viewpoints and also petitioner lacked logic while refusing publication.
The court emphasized that freedom of speech and expression should be read and interpreted broadly. It also includes the right to propagate one’s view through various mediums. The honorable court observed, “Freedom to air one’s view is the lifeline of any democratic institution and any attempt to stifle or suffocate or gag this right would sound a death knell to democracy and would help the user in autocracy or dictatorship.”
While contending his side, the respondent laid his argument on the documentary film on the Bhopal gas tragedy titled “Beyond Genocide”. This film was produced by Shri Tapan Bose, the managing trustee of the respondent trust. The film was awarded the Golden Lotus, being the best non-feature film of 1987. At the presentation of awards, it was declared by Central Minister for Information and Broadcasting that this film will telecast on Doordarshan. However, later on, it was refused by them stating that content has no relevance for telecast now. Screening Committee took into consideration the fact that while most of the claims for compensation for the victims of the Bhopal Disaster were sub-judice and political parties were raising a certain issue, it was inexpedient and unwise to telecast the film. It was also feared that it would only end in further vitiating the atmosphere and will serve no social purpose. The case was filed before the court and the High Court concluded that the respondent’s right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution was suppressed. The refusal was purely executive and not law within the ambit of A-19(2). It was clearly stated that no restriction can be possessed on the fundamental rights guaranteed and therefore, directed Doordarshan to telecast the documentary.
The court highlighted the importance of electronic media and stated that citizens of India have the right to express their views freely in any periodicals, magazines, and journals. The court observed, “It is well known that these communication channels are great purveyors of news and views and make a considerable impact on the minds of the readers and viewers and are known to mold public opinion on vital issues of national importance.” They have the right to express their opinions until they are violative of Article 19(2). It was also laid down that these powers and freedom should be used with utmost care and caution.
The court relied on the judgement of Romesh Tappar vs. The State of Madras, where it was held that freedom of speech and expression is the very foundation of all democratic organizations and are essential for proper working. This view was reiterated in Indian Express Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. And Ors vs. UOI wherein this right was not limited but broadened to the right to information and right to public communications. It was highlighted that in today’s world freedom of the press is the heart of Political and social intercourse.
The court stated that this right indirectly benefits the common man as they have the right to be informed about their surroundings and the media plays a vital role in disseminating information. This right can only be reasonably restricted under Article 19(2) on the anvil of necessity and not in the name of convenience.
Furthermore, the bench stated that there is no question on whether LIC comes under the ambit of the State under Article 12 of the Constitution. Referring to the LIC Act, 1956 the court stated that the corporation must carry business in the best interest of the community. The paper published by the respondent was to endeavour the reality to the community. The respondent contended before the Hon’ble court that statistics might be obsolete but these activities of high premium are still carried on by the LIC. The corporation was held under the obligation to publish the respondent’s rejoinder and their appeal was dismissed
The judgment highlighted the Right of Press Council of India which existed from the time memorial. As per section 14(1) of the Press Council of India Act, non-publication of a relevant matter can be objectionable and may be construed as professional misconduct. This act gives the power to file a complaint against the non-publisher. At the same time, it also recognizes editorial privilege under Article 19(1)(a) to refuse publication. However, the rejection should be reasonable and not lack logic.
The press act as a public educator and guides the common man with formal and informal information. They need to publish articles in the public interest which may be against critical action of the government to expose their activities. Implicit in the court's judgment is the recognition sub silentio of the right of reply without specifically dealing with its scope and dimension in the context of the guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.
  SCR 495   2 SCR 287