Supreme Court stays criminal proceedings against Manipur journalist Makepeace Sitlhou

A first information report had been filed against Makepeace Sitlhou for a few of her tweets. She contended that criticising the state government was her right and duty as a journalist.

ON Monday, the Supreme Court stayed the criminal proceedings against Fulbright fellow and journalist Makepeace Sitlhou over her tweets critical of the Manipur government concerning the ongoing ethnic violence in the state.

A Bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra passed an Order to this effect after hearing senior advocate Kapil Sibal assisted by advocate-on-record Prasanna S. for the petitioner.

In her petition, Sitlhou has sought the quashing of the first information report (FIR) against her under Sections 120B, 153A, 500 and 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) at the Imphal (West) police station.

As per the petition, an FIR was lodged against Sitlhou upon a written complaint to the officer-in-charge of the Imphal (West) police station by one Lairenlakpam Sandeep, resident of Lamboikhongnangkhong against her.

In the complaint, it was alleged that Sitlhou had “used social media platforms as a tool to propagate misleading statements and to destabilise a democratically elected government, disturb communal harmony by creating enmity amongst communities and to defame the state government and one particular community”.

It was also claimed that Sitlhou, through her tweets on the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter) has made “false statements and propaganda” with the purpose “to incite one particular community, to topple such democratically elected government” and that her statements are a “threat to the security of the state”.

A dozen tweets were provided in the written complaint which form the basis of the FIR against the petitioner.

Attacking the FIR, Sitlhou averred that all 12 tweets in question were those in which she had criticised the government in power and bemoaned the lack of adequate efforts to tackle the volatile situation that had prevailed when the tweets were authored.

In the tweets referred to in the complaint, the petitioner, who is a journalist, has tweeted against rumours, against violence, against the lack of action and ‘political will’ on behalf of politicians and has highlighted the impact of the violence on ethnic groups in the Northeast.

The petitioner has further expressed her opinion against the deeply unfortunate demands for certain ethnic groups to ‘go back where they belong’ and has highlighted the ethnic nature of the violence that had prevailed at the time of authoring the tweets,” the petition read.

Sitlhou contended that as a committed journalist, she had not refrained from reporting on the violation of human rights or regarding acts of targeted violence against communities and ethnicities, and her articles often traverse sensitive aspects and sources.

Any incursion on the freedom of the petitioner as a citizen and a journalist to uncover and present the truth, protected by Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution, would have a chilling effect on journalism in the country.

The nature of allegations against the petitioner further do not warrant any investigation as there is no allegation against the petitioner which can be uncovered by interrogation or arrest of the petitioner,” the petition contended.

The Manipur police have been indiscriminately filing FIRs against journalists and academicians for expressing views against the state government.

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

Two FIRs had 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.

The Supreme Court also protected a retired colonel Dr Vijaykant Chenji from arrest in an FIR against him for authoring a book, The Anglo-Kuki War 1917–19: Victory in Defeat, which was published in January 2022.

The court had also granted interim protection to Dr Kham Khan Suan Hausing, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, in connection with an FIR against him for an interview to a news portal in which he was critical of the state government.

The Supreme Court had also protected from arrest two co-editors of a book, Dr Jangkhomang Guite and Dr Thongkholal Haokip. Published in 2019, the book commemorates the burning of a Kuki-Zo village, Lompi, by the British. The petitioners belong to the Kuki-Zo community.

The court had also come to the rescue of a young lawyer who is facing an FIR in Manipur for being part of a fact-finding committee investigating the ethnic violence in the state.