SC extends interim relief to The Wire journalists in FIRs filed by UP Police
The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed news portal ‘The Wire’ to approach the Allahabad high court for quashing criminal cases lodged against its journalists in Uttar Pradesh and protected them from arrest for two months.
The Foundation for Independent Journalism, the company which publishes The Wire, approached the top court on August 26 along with three of its journalists for an order to quash the criminal cases lodged against them by the Uttar Pradesh police accusing them of spreading disharmony, enmity and feelings of hatred between different groups of people in the society.
Senior advocate Nithya Ramakrishnan, who represented the petitioners, told the court that journalists did not seek any special protection but this was a question of muzzling freedom of press.
The bench of justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai and BV Nagarathna said, “We are aware about your press freedom and we do not want press freedom to be muzzled. But at the same time, we do not want to open the floodgates for quashing petitions to be filed under Article 32. You approach the high court.”
The counsels for the petitioners urged that arrest was imminent as the investigating officer in the Barabanki FIR had summoned the Editor and journalists to obey the summons, failing which non-bailable warrants shall be procured. In the other FIRs, the accused journalists are yet to hear from the police authorities.
The bench, while allowing the petition to be withdrawn, granted protection from arrest in connection with the three FIRs for a period of two months.
The three FIRs lodged this year on January 31, June 15 and June 24 related to news stories published by the news portal which related to demolition of a disputed structure at Barabanki, an interview with the kin of a person allegedly killed in farmer agitation, and a video purportedly showing miscreants chopping off the beard of an aged Muslim man.
The FIRs lodged at Rampur, Ghaziabad and Barabanki accused the portal and its journalists of offences under the Indian Penal Code of Section 153A (promoting disharmony), Section 295A (insulting religion or religious beliefs) and Section 505 (spreading false and mischievous news) besides criminal conspiracy and common intention relatable to the above crimes.
The petition, filed by advocate Shadan Farasat, said, “These provisions which deal with actual offences against communal harmony are presently being subverted and misused and used to gag any media reportage on incidents that may have a communal/religious/political angle. In these circumstances, it is essential that the contours of these offences particularly in the context of action against journalists or media houses be clearly set out, so that they are not used by police authorities to muzzle constitutionally protected (freedom of) speech.”
Interestingly, the issue of use of Sections 153A and 505 of IPC against media channels and journalists is already pending consideration in a separate matter before the top court. Two news channels – Aamoda Broadcasting (ABN Andhra Jyoti) and Shreya Broadcasting (TV5) had approached the top court questioning FIRs registered against them in Andhra Pradesh accusing their reporting of fomenting communal disharmony and amounting to sedition.
On May 31 this year, the top court stayed any coercive action against the two media houses and said, “The ambit and parameters of the provisions of sections 124A, 153A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 would require interpretation, particularly in the context of the right of the electronic and print media to communicate news, information and the rights, even those that may be critical of the prevailing regime in any part of the nation.”
The present petition cited this case and said, “To posit reporting – especially the verbatim claims of citizens who are or say they are victims of crime – as tending to create disharmony or as an inherently criminal act is most pernicious, and this mode of criminalizing expression deserves relief and remedial measures from this court, else no journalist will be able to report fearlessly and the media will become caught in the criminal process for simply doing its job.”