In a landmark judgment dealing with the right to privacy in India, Delhi High Court recently held that the media cannot be restrained from reporting confidential information about a company pertaining to its upcoming projects and dealings with other companies.
In Petronet LNG Ltd v Indian Petro Group and Anr, petroleum company Petronet (plaintiff) sought an injunction against Indian Petro (defendants), the proprietor of the website www.indianpetro.com, to prevent it from publishing confidential or misleading information relating to Petronet’s negotiations and contracts on the website in any form, without the written consent of the plaintiff. It was alleged that the defendants, despite being aware of adverse consequences to the plaintiff, had published such confidential information, and that the website was disseminating confidential information which was affecting the plaintiff’s business prospects. The defendants contended that the question of how the plaintiff functions and conducts its affairs is a matter which the public has a right to know, and that therefore, as members of the media, they had the right to disseminate such information.
The issue presented to the court was whether Petronet can claim a right to privacy, and seek an injunction against the defendants from publishing articles or reports on their website.
In dismissing the plea and imposing costs of Rs100,000 (US$2,060) the court held that in the case of a corporate entity, such publications will not be interdicted unless the news presented is of such a sensitive nature that the company’s business or very existence is threatened, or that a commercial venture might be gravely jeopardized. The plaintiff had been unable to substantiate its claim for confidentiality, or its claim that the information in question was of such a sensitive nature as to warrant prior restraint of its disclosure. On the other hand, the defendants had been able to show public interest in news reporting and discussion about the plaintiff’s functioning.
The court held that a grant of injunction would destroy the very essence of press freedom and the right of the public to be informed about the functioning of an entity in which a 50% stake is held by central public sector undertakings. The court further held that while certain fundamental rights like Article 14 are available to artificial or juristic personalities like companies, Article 19 rights are not available to them. Instead, shareholders or directors can approach the court for relief if they can establish that the impugned action impairs their rights.
The case is significant as it demarcates the distinction between freedom of press and the right of the public to be informed of matters of general importance and the right of an individual claiming confidentiality of such information, or privacy.
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