Supreme Court extends interim protection from arrest for fact-finding in Manipur to Editors Guild of India journalists

“Will you now prosecute journalists under Section 153A of the IPC [for false statements in an article]?” asks the Chief Justice of India Dr D.Y. Chandrachud.

TODAY, the Supreme Court extended interim protection from arrest by Manipur police and stayed all criminal proceedings against three journalists from the Editors Guild of India.

Two first information reports (FIRs) have been filed in Manipur against the members of the team belonging to the guild who had submitted a fact-finding report on violence-hit Manipur.

A three-judge Bench led by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and also comprising Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra entertained the plea for quashing the FIRs.

The Bench also directed the complainant in the FIRs to file a counter-affidavit.

On September 11, a Bench led by the CJI and also comprising Justices P.S. Narasimha and Misra had directed the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta to take instructions on transferring the matter to the Delhi High Court from the Manipur High Court.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing on behalf of the petitioners, had raised serious concerns on the matter being heard in the Manipur High Court.

‘Bona fide report’

Today, senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing on behalf of the journalists, prayed for the quashing of the FIRs or, alternatively, transferring the petition to the Delhi High Court.

Divan reiterated that between August 7 and 10, the guild sent the petitioners— Seema Gupta, Sanjay Kapoor and Bharat Bhushan— to report on the issue of local and State media coverage in Manipur.

It was insisted by Divan that the fact-finding team was constituted after the Indian army had raised concerns about unethical and ex parte reporting by local media in Manipur and asked for an objective assessment of the issue.

According to the report, a written complaint by the Indian army’s Third Corps headquarters claimed that “the media outlets of Imphal Valley” may be “one of the major contributors to the instigation of further violence”.

The report states that the team was constituted after receiving several representations on the alleged “uneven and biased reportage of the conflict”.

Divan submitted that the report was released by the fact-finding team on September 2.

Divan informed the court that subsequent to the report, on September 3, two FIRs were filed against the journalists claiming that incorrect and false statements have been made in the report and that the report promotes enmity between groups.

The report alleges that the local media in Manipur have written one-sided reports and the coverage has worsened due to the internet ban in the state.

The report also claims that the “leadership of the state became partisan during the conflict”.

According to Divan, the report is bona fide since it consists of assessments, evaluations and recommendations based on consultations with several journalists and organisations in Manipur.

Divan submitted that the fact-finding team of the guild consists of senior editors and journalists, and the guild has a record of reporting for over four decades.

Raising the issue of importance of press freedom, Divan highlighted that while everyone may not find the report agreeable, a case for filing an FIR is not made out.

Divan informed the court that along with its own fact-finding report, the guild’s website has published counter-views to the findings in the report.

Dangers in hearing the matter in the Manipur High Court

Divan submitted that following the filing of the FIRs, on September 4, the Chief Minister of Manipur N. Biren Singh had held a press conference and stated that the Editors Guild of India had made provocative statements about Manipur.

In view of the incessant and ongoing violence in Manipur, Divan contended that the personal safety of the petitioners will be put in danger if they have to visit the Manipur High Court to attend the proceedings.

Divan pointed out that on September 14, a police officer was shot dead by a ‘sniper’ in Churachandpur district in Manipur.

It was also reiterated by Divan that lawyers appearing in the Manipur High Court are threatened and their properties are ransacked.

On September 6, senior advocate Anand Grover had apprised the Supreme Court of the threat to the lawyers representing Dr Kham Khan Suan Hausing, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, in Manipur High Court.

An FIR has been lodged against Dr Hausing under Sections 120B, 153A, 200, 295A, 298 and 505(i) of the IPC for giving an interview on violence-hit Manipur to The Wire.

The three advocates, engaged by Grover to represent Dr Hausing in the Manipur High Court, have withdrawn from the case due to alleged threats by members of their own (Meitei) community.

The house of one of the lawyers, Soraisham Chittaranjan, was vandalised by a mob.

Divan expressed his shock over a public interest litigation (PIL) entertained by the Manipur High Court that impleaded the petitioners as respondents.

Divan noted that amongst other prayers, the PIL prayed for issuing a direction to the Union and state governments to not rely on the guild’s report and debarring any authority to refer to it as an authenticated report.

‘No paralysis of legal system’

Mehta referred to the submissions by senior advocate Anand Grover on the threat to Imphal-based lawyers to appear in the Manipur High Court.

On September 12, the Bench directed Grover to file an affidavit on the difficulty in engaging a lawyer who could appear on Grover’s behalf in the Manipur High Court.

Mehta read a letter from the registrar general of the Manipur High Court that from August 30 to September 14, a total of 2,683 cases were listed for hearing before various Benches of the high court.

The virtual hearing included logging in by non-locals, including Grover and senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, Mehta noted.

There is no paralysis of the legal system,” Mehta claimed.

Referring to the fact-finding missions, Mehta remarked that they are involved in “narrative building”.

‘Painting one community black’

Senior advocate S. Guru Krishna Kumar, representing the complainant in the FIRs, submitted that the guild’s report has been written from a “Kuki perspective” and projects a view from only one side.

Claiming that the report makes “sweeping” statements and allegations, Kumar contended that it is “painting one community black”. 

By acting as a “mouthpiece” of one community, the guild’s report is not objective and fails to represent a factual situation, Kumar stated.

Kumar submitted that the report makes a “clear case” of Section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as it furthers animosity between groups, and called for its investigation.

‘False statement is not an offence’

After hearing Kumar’s arguments, the Bench decided to entertain the quashing of plea of the petitioners.

The CJI observed that the guild is entitled to put forth a viewpoint.

It is [just] a report,” the CJI stressed.

The Bench raised serious doubts on whether the ingredients of the offences under Sections 153-A and 200 of the IPC are made out.

Section 200 penalises any person who corruptly uses any false declaration and depicts it to be true.

Does it [the complaint] make even a whisper of the offences?” the CJI asked Kumar.

Further, the CJI pointedly questioned Kumar, “Will you now prosecute journalists under Section 153A of the IPC [for false statements in an article]?”

The CJI observed that the action of filing of FIRs is a counter-narrative of the state government.

It was reiterated by the CJI that the report was filed after Indian army officers filed a complaint to the guild on biased reporting in Manipur.

The report may be right or wrong. This is what free speech is about,” the CJI remarked.

In reply to the observations of the CJI, Kumar prayed for time to submit a reply to the present petition.

Mehta warned the court that taking up the quashing plea of the guild would result in “inviting hundreds of petitions under [Article] 32 [of the Constitution]”. 

The Bench decided to proceed with the consideration of petitioner’s plea to quash the FIRs and directed Kumar to file a counter-affidavit in two weeks.

The Leaflet