New Delhi: On Friday, a Supreme Court bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah agreed to grant interim protection of three weeks to Republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami against any coercive steps in relation to a First Information Report (FIR) filed over a news telecast on April 21.
During the telecast, Goswami had launched into a tirade against Congress president Sonia Gandhi over her alleged “deliberate silence” on the Palghar lynching.
The FIR in question – FIR No. 238, dated April 22 – has been transferred from Sadar police station in Nagpur to the N.M. Joshi Marg police station in Mumbai with the mutual consent of all parties involved. The investigation triggered by this FIR has also not been stayed.
The bench made it clear that the investigation of the FIR can take place in accordance with the law without the Supreme Court deploying its jurisdiction under Article 32 to obstruct the due process of law.
This means the police can start its probe, including its questioning of Goswami, though it cannot detain him.
The Supreme Court took note of the fact that the N.M. Joshi Marg police station is also where Goswami filed an FIR on April 23 – in relation to his allegation that he and his spouse were obstructed by two persons and subjected to an assault while returning from the studio late at night.
While the Mumbai police will now investigate both the complaint against Goswami and his complaint against the two persons, the bench stayed further proceedings arising out of and emanating from the remaining FIRs and complaints until further orders.
This includes three complaints received by the Chhattisgarh police from three district units of the Congress, one each by the Mumbai and Indore police from the Youth Congress and a Congress party worker respectively, one by Telangana police from the Telangana Youth Congress, one by Ranchi police from the Jharkhand Youth Congress Vice President, one by Madhya Pradesh police from the state Youth Congress, and two complaints received by the Jaipur police from concerned citizens.
The bench has also stayed all criminal complaints which have been filed or which may be filed hereafter, with respect to the same incident.
The bench granted protection to Goswami only to enable him to move an application for anticipatory bail under Section 438 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), and to “pursue such remedies as are available in accordance with law”. Such an application, the bench made it clear, shall be considered on its own merits by the competent court.
The bench also directed that in addition to the personal security provided to Goswami, if a request is made by him to the Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, for providing adequate security at his residence or at the studio of Republic TV in Mumbai, such a request shall be expeditiously considered and, based on the threat perception, police protection shall be provided – if considered appropriate and for the period during which the threat perception continues. The bench granted this additional protection to assuage Goswami’s apprehension of a threat to his safety and the safety of his business establishment.
The bench stayed the investigation into the de facto duplicate FIRs, and provided interim protection on the basis of the following principles: the need for the law to protect journalistic freedom within the ambit of Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution; and the need to ensure that the criminal process does not assume the character of a vexatious exercise by the institution of multiple complaints founded on the same cause in different states.
It is clear that the bench’s order is a setback to Goswami’s plea to stay or quash all the FIRs/complaints registered against him in the wake of the controversial telecast. While the bench has stayed the investigation of the other complaints/FIRs flowing from the same cause of action, the one registered in Nagpur, which has been transferred to Mumbai, has been left untouched.
Indeed, the bench made a special mention of the provisions of Indian Penal Code invoked in the Nagpur FIR (which are similar to other FIRs/complaints as well, and referred to in the order itself) as Sections 153, 153-A, 153-B, 295-A, 298, 500, 504(2), 506, 120-B and 117.
Although Kapil Sibal, representing the state of Maharashtra, did not oppose clubbing the FIRs filed in diverse jurisdictions, and a direction for a common investigation “in the interests of justice”, the bench, in its wisdom, did not do so, as it would have resulted in the investigation being transferred to the CBI or a Special Investigation Team – a prospect which could have brought the impartiality of the investigation under a cloud.
The bench has preferred to keep an open mind on the submission by Goswami’s senior counsel, Mukul Rohatgi, that if the impugned telecast is viewed in its entirety, no offence is made out under sections 153, 153A, 153B, 295A, 298, 500, 504 and 506 of the IPC. Rohatgi also claimed that the impugned statements attributed to Goswami are based on a small part of the overall programme. By permitting the investigation of the FIR filed in Nagpur and transferring it to the Mumbai police, the bench has left it to the police to test and verify the accuracy of Rohatgi’s submission, rather than form an opinion on its own.
But on the ‘harassment’ limb of Rohatgi’s submission, the bench found substance, and relied on it to support its order staying investigation on the additional FIRs and complaints.
Rohatgi said Goswami had a right to present an analysis of the mob lynching which took place at Palghar on April 16 in the course of which two persons were killed in the presence of personnel belonging to the police and the forest department.
The bench recognised that Goswami’s right flowed from Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution, guaranteeing freedom of expression, including the freedom of the media. Protection of this right would, therefore, necessitate that he be spared unnecessary harassment by the police departments of other jurisdictions, which have also registered similar complaints and FIRs like the Nagpur police.
While guaranteeing Goswami’s freedom of expression and protecting his right to continue to telecast his programmes on Republic TV, the bench left open the question of whether the offending part of the April 21 telecast was an abuse of that freedom. A conclusion on this question has to await the result of the investigation of the FIR registered in Nagpur – which has now been transferred to Mumbai.
The Supreme Court will have more to say on this case, as it has issued notice – returnable in eight weeks to all the respondents, who include the state of Maharashtra, the state of Chhattisgarh, the state of Rajasthan and individual complainants at whose behest the FIRs and the criminal complaints have been filed in several states.