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.

22. Even before this Court, the same submission was made. [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]. 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 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 defamatory material.

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, L.R. 3 QBD 60. 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 foregoing observations.” 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 …”

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.