'Time to Define Limits of Sedition', Particularly in Context of Media Freedom: SC

A Supreme Court bench has stayed coercive action against two Telugu channels by the Andhra Pradesh police over the airing of a rebel YSRCP MP's statement.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on May 31 said that it “is time to define the limits of sedition,” noting that sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with sedition require interpretation, particularly in the context of media freedom.

LiveLaw has reported that the apex court’s observation came as it stayed coercive action against two Telugu-language news channels against whom the Andhra Pradesh police had alleged sedition over the airing of a statement by an MP who had rebelled against the ruling party in the state.

The bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat said the sedition FIRs by Andhra Police against channels TV5 News and ABN Andhra Jyoti appeared to be an attempt to “muzzle media freedom.”

The channels had filed writ petitions asking for the FIRs to be quashed and had also moved contempt petitions saying that the Andhra Police had violated the Supreme Court’s earlier order against punitive action for airing of COVID-19 related grievances.

The sedition FIRs were registered against the channels for airing press statements made by rebel YSRCP leader Kanumuri Raghurama Krishnam Raju, the MP from Narsapuram. Raju was arrested by the state Criminal Investigation Department for sedition shortly after he had asked a special CBI court to cancel the bail given to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy in a 2012 disproportionate assets case, according to NDTV.

There were allegations that he had been tortured in jail, which the ruling party has denied. The Supreme Court granted bail to Raju on May 21.

The Andhra Police’s FIR against the channel alleges premeditation in the fact that the channels chose to allot airspace to Raju. The channels, in their plea, have alleged that as Raju was a public figure, there was no premeditation involved in their decision to air his statement.

Also read: ‘Govt Uses Sedition Law to Create Fear, It Should Be Abolished’: Retired SC Judge

The Supreme Court bench on Monday observed that there was need to define the scope of offences under Section 124A (sedition) and Section 153A (promotion of communal hatred) of the Indian Penal Code, “especially in the context of media freedom” and “particularly on the issue of the rights of press and free speech,” according to LiveLaw.

While the bench has stayed coercive action against the channels until the next hearing date, it has not stayed investigation in the case.

Apart from the two above sections, the FIRs against the channels also mention Section 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) read with 120B (punishment of criminal conspiracy).

“It is time we define the limits of sedition,” Justice Chandrachud noted.

Bar and Bench has reported that while hearing a separate case, a suo motu one related to COVID-19 management, Justice Chandrachud also asked whether a sedition case has been filed against a news outlet for showing how a dead body of a COVID-19 patient was thrown into a river by his relatives.

“A news report yesterday showed dead body was being thrown into river. I don’t know if a sedition case has been filed against the news channel yet,” Justice Chandrachud said, ostensibly critical of government clampdown on media houses.

The misuse of the sedition law by law enforcement and government has been under perpetual scrutiny, especially in the last two years, when the law has been used to book climate activist Disha Ravi for editing a toolkit to amplify farmers’ protests,  and a number of students, activists and academics for their role in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act – which Delhi Police has linked to the riots in February 2020.

The law has been used against journalists as well in this time. In January, a total of three sedition cases were filed across three BJP-ruled states against Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, India Today journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, National Herald’s senior consulting editor Mrinal Pande, Qaumi Awaz editor Zafar Agha, The Caravan magazine’s editor and founder Paresh Nath, The Caravan editor Anant Nath and its executive editor Vinod K. Jose, and one unnamed person for sharing “unverified” news during the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on January 26. Their arrest was later stayed by the Supreme Court.

Ranking 142 among 180 countries, India was recently listed by Reporters Without Borders under countries considered “bad” for journalism and is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.