The Supreme Court on Friday asked why the FIR lodged in Manipur against four Editors Guild of India journalists should not be quashed, and expressed dismay at Manipur High Court entertaining a PIL for quashing the Guild’s report on the violence and its media coverage.
The top court extended by two more weeks the interim protection to the four members of the Guild’s fact-finding team, which says it visited Manipur after being alerted by the army about allegedly biased coverage of the situation by some local media outlets.
The apex court said that even if the Guild’s report was incorrect, a criminal offence was not made out as alleged by the complainants. It said the issue involved "free speech".
A bench headed by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud expressed strong disapproval of the FIRs, registered under penal provisions that include Section 153A (promoting enmity between different communities) and Section 200 (making false declaration before a court)
Tell us how any of these offences are made out from their (Guild’s) report,” the bench, which included Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Mishra, asked senior counsel Guru Krishna Kumar who was representing the complainants.
“What is happening? They are entitled to put their views. This is just a report. Where did you get all these offences from, like Section 153A?”
Section 200 entails a punishment ranging from seven years to life imprisonment.
“Where did they give a declaration to a court? How is Section 200 attracted here? File an affidavit. Put it on record. Tell us why the complaints and the FIRs should not be quashed,” the bench said while adjourning the matter by two weeks.
The Chief Justice of India also took exception to Manipur High Court admitting a public interest litigation (PIL) plea from the International Meitei Forum that seeks quashing of the Guild’s fact-finding report.
“The manner in which the PIL is entertained by the Chief Justice of the high court… let me not say anything further as head of the family. But surely there are more pressing matters to be entertained than these kinds of PILs by the high court,” Justice Chandrachud remarked orally.
“The EGI sends a team of senior journalists to go to the ground to investigate and find out. They submit a report which may be right or wrong — that is what free speech is all about,” he said.
“If media reports go wrong, will you charge all journalists under Section 153A? We are concerned. The moment somebody puts something in print, it may be wrong — then you will lodge an FIR under Section 153A?
“Your entire complaint is a counter-narrative… you assume what the EGI said is false. Making a false statement in an article is not an offence under Section 153A.”
Earlier, senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for the Guild, said the fact-finding team had found “there was a community controlling the narrative”.
“There is extreme pressure on journalists to put forth views of their community rather than reporting on facts,” he said.
Divan said the initial Guild report had some mistakes that were corrected immediately.
The apex court is also considering the Guild’s plea to transfer the matter to the jurisdiction of Delhi High Court because of the volatile situation in Manipur.
Kumar, the complainants’ counsel, said the Guild report had been prepared from the perspective of the Kuki community.
“They (the Guild team) are crying about safety. They have been there in Manipur for five days. They have met a cross-section of people. Now they say it’s not safe?” he said.
Solicitor-general Tushar Mehta, representing the Manipur government, denied allegations that advocates were not being allowed to appear before Manipur High Court.
He cited figures furnished by the high court registry about the number of times senior advocate Anand Grover and others had appeared before Manipur High Court in matters related to the ongoing violence.
Cases have been registered against journalists Seema Mustafa, Seema Guha, Sanjay Kapoor and Bharat Bhushan under IPC sections 153A, 200, 298 (deliberately inciting religious feelings), 505 (statements conducive to public mischief) and 120B (criminal conspiracy). The complaints were lodged by some local social activists