Tripura HC Condemns Overstepping Jurisdiction Under the PRB Act by District Magistrate

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Through the judgement delivered by Hon’ble Justice S Talapatra on 14.08.2020 in the case of Daily Desher Katha Trust & Anr vs The State of Tripura & Ors, the Tripura High Court examines the contours of the power conferred on the Magistrate under the Press and Registration of Books Act in the context of grant of certificate of registration to newspapers.

Facts of the Case 

Daily Keshar Katha, a newspaper was previously owned by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM), but in the newspaper, the Daily Keshar Katha Trust is printed as owner. This violated Sec5(1) of the Press and Registration of Books Act which mandates all newspapers to contain the name of the owner and if ownership is transferred, a fresh declaration shall be necessary. The fresh declaration by Sri Samir Paul was found to have been authenticated without going through material facts and relevant process. Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) therefore cancelled the declaration based on which the certificate of registration was granted to the newspaper, “Daily Desher Katha”, consequently District Magistrate(DM) ordered the Registrar of Newspapers of India(RNI) to cancel the newspaper’s registration and the registration was cancelled by order by RNI. The Petitioners have challenged the entire action by SDM and DM as arbitrary, illegal and malafide.

Issues

Whether the writ petition was maintainable since the PRB Act provided an appeal provision under Sec 8C?

Whether the cancellation of declaration and subsequently the certificate of registration is sustainable in law?

Submissions before the Court 

Respondents challenged the maintainability of the Petition, Sec 8B of the PRB Act provides for the procedure and circumstances for cancellation of declaration. It may be cancelled on an application made by the Press Registrar or any other person or otherwise by a Magistrate empowered to authenticate a declaration under the PRB Act, after providing an opportunity to show cause, holding an inquiry, giving an opportunity of being heard. If after this process, the Magistrate is satisfied that the concerned newspaper has violated any provision of the Act may by order cancel the declaration. Sec8C provides an appeal provided by the aggrieved person to the Press Registration Appellate Board within 60 days. Due to the appeal provision provided for in the Act, the writ jurisdiction of the High Court cannot be invoked. Further submitted that the Petitioners have failed in fulfilling the obligation to file a declaration that adequately suffices the requirements of being valid.

Petitioners submitted that the fundamental rights of the Petitioner have been violated and hence the writ is maintainable. Further submitted that the declaration as required under the PRB Act was filed by the Petitioners, however, it was the authority in charge who failed to notify the acceptance or rejection of the declaration for years, therefore an acceptance could be presumed and hence the declaration cannot be held invalid by the DM.

Court’s observation and Decision

The Court observed that it is ex facie true that there is a discrepancy between the name of the editor, printer and publisher as displayed in the RNI website and as printed in the newspaper. Petitioners have contended that they cannot be held accountable since the name and details of the paper were changed by declaration dated 18.07.2012 and the Press Registrar hadn’t effected the change and no reason was conveyed to the newspaper. In the reply as part of the current proceedings, the reason given by the Press Registrar was that the change was not effected presumably for the deficiency in the declaration and non-submission of relevant documents. Such reply that showed presumption of inference and the omission on part of the Press Registrar to inform the Petitioners of any deficiency in the declaration made, was held to clearly show malafide. If a declaration has not been rejected clearly by order for fatal flaws, it has to be presumed that the obligation to make declaration has been fulfilled. For non-issuance of a fresh certificate of registration, the newspaper cannot be held liable. Therefore the action against the Petitioner is grossly arbitrary and unsustainable.

There is no dispute that the Daily Keshar Katha is an old newspaper and was being published regularly by a certificate of registration dated 29.04.1979. It is the requirement under law that while a declaration is made by a person on behalf of the newspaper, a letter authorizing such person to make such declaration shall be produced, however, such letter is produced cannot be questioned by the DM without any dispute raised by any person claiming ownership. If after the filing of a declaration, it is not authenticated by a DM by an express order citing clear reasons then such decision to not authenticate is liable to be treated as grossly arbitrary and unsustainable. Further cancellation of the declaration without following the due process given under the PRB Act, by not disclosing clear reasons and not providing an opportunity of representation, has violated the principles of natural justice to which the Petitioners are entitled to. Citing the case of Gopal Dass Sharma Vs. DM, Jammu & Anr., the Court observed that in the event of the fundamental right of the Petitioner being violated, the Court can maintain such petition even if there is a provision for appeal. Thus, the actions of the Respondent that have caused a grave violation of natural justice and violation of statute empowers the Court to invoke its jurisdiction under Art 226 of the Constitution of India.

Section 6 of the PRB Act provides for the grounds on which inquiry can be initiated by SDM to authenticate a declaration and a similar power has been given to the DM, in the facts of the present case, the DM has used the order of cancellation of a declaration by SDM to order the cancellation of registration while no such power has been conferred on the DM by the Act, therefore such order is grossly illegal unsustainable and jurisprudentially bad.

Further, when declaration made by the publisher or printer where such person is not the owner, a letter of authorization needs to be produced and that would suffice and no further inquiry was required to be made by the DM. This has been highlighted in the case of Dwarka Prasad Agarwal (dead) by LRs & Anr. Vs. Ramesh Chandra Agarwal & Ors. In the instant case, the DM has completely overstepped its powers and has initiated an inquiry for checking the veracity of the title of the newspaper. The court in this context observed that “there is a propensity to wield the power of a guardian of the newspaper by the District Magistrate or the other magistrates who are conferred with the power to authenticate even though the law does not acknowledge such power. In the name of inquiry, as we have noticed those magistrates resort to highhandedness and consider the extraneous materials to authenticate the declaration. The emergence of such propensity is a ―threat in disguise to the freedom of the press is derived from the freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.”

Based on the above observations, the cancellation of certificate of registration was set aside and as a corollary, the RNI was directed to restore the certificate of registration to the Petitioners 


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