Bombay HC Suspends Proceedings on 2 FIRs Against Republic TV Editor-in-Chief

"We cannot have the spectacle of a Damocles' sword hanging over the head of a journalist while conducting a public debate”.

New Delhi: Staying the proceedings in two criminal cases filed against Republic TV’s editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, the Bombay high court said that as a “mature democracy,” India cannot have the “spectacle of a Damocles’ sword” hanging over a journalist conducting a public debate.

During a debate broadcast on Republic TV after the killing of three persons in Palghar in April, Goswami had questioned whether principal opposition party Congress’s president Sonia Gandhi was silent due to the victims having been “Hindu holy men”. Multiple FIRs had been by various Congress leaders across the country.

On May 19, the Supreme Court quashed all the FIRs, except one, and transferred the matter to Mumbai.

While Harish Salve and Milind Sathe appeared for Goswami, Kabil Sibal and Raja Thakare argued on behalf of the Maharashtra government.

Also read: As FIRs Against Media Pile Up, Inconsistent SC Response Points to Judicial Incoherence

According to LiveLaw, Salve admitted that the language used in the two broadcast “might be sharp” and may even be in bad taste or defamatory, but it does not make out a case under sections 153 and 295A of the Indian penal code.

Salve admitted that the language used by the petitioner in the two broadcasts “might have been sharp” and a view may even be taken that it was in bad taste or defamatory. But it does not make out a case of offence under sections 153, 153A, 153B and 295A IPC.

The division bench Justice Ujjal Bhuyan and Justice Riyaz Chagla noted that the object of Goswami’s attack was the Congress party and its president. “There was no mentioning of either the Muslim community or the Christian community. It would be too far fetched to say that two religious communities were involved in the debate. As a matter of fact, there was no reference to the Muslim community or to the Christian community,” the order said.

The judges further observed that “if the transcript together with the first information are read as a whole, we do not find any statement made by the petitioner which can be construed to be against the Muslim community or Christian community”.

Asserting that India “is now a mature democracy”, the order stated, “We cannot have the spectacle of a Damocles’ sword hanging over the head of a journalist while conducting a public debate”.

“Seventy years into our republic we cannot be seen to be skating on thin ice so much so that mere mention of a place of worship will lead to animosity or hatred amongst religious communities causing upheaval and conflagration on the streets. Subscribing to such a view would stifle all legitimate discussions and debates in the public domain,” it added.

The order said that while a language used may be construed as defaming Sonia Gandhi or Congress party, the offence of criminal defamation would be excluded from purview of investigation of the president FIR as said offence can only be taken cognisance by a magistrate on a complaint instituted by the aggrieved person.

Also read: SC’s Interim Protection to Arnab Goswami: What It Does and Doesn’t Say

The court also said that it cannot also be overlooked that the present FIR was part of 15 complaints lodged by Congress party members and supporters in diverse jurisdictions.

On Kapil Sibal’s contention that Goswami communalised the gathering of migrants outside a mosque even though they gathered outside Bandra station, the division said that the petitioner had already clarified this statement on the show wherein he said that there was no question of targeting any community.

“It was a fact that the incident had taken place outside the Jama Masjid but there was no question of any religion. He further clarified by saying that if the same incident had happened outside the Siddhivinayak temple or any other temple, he would have said the same thing and asked the panelists not to bring religion in every issue”, Court said.

Suspending the proceedings in the two FIRs, the court issued notice to the Attorney General regarding the challenge to vires of sections 153A and 153B(1) IPC.