The Bombay high court on Tuesday suspended two FIRs filed against Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami for allegedly making inflammatory comments, saying that on the face of it no offence was disclosed.
The FIRs pertain to Goswami's comments about the Palghar lynching incident and migrants gathering in large numbers in Bandra area of Mumbai during lockdown.
A division bench of Justices Ujjal Bhuyan and Riyaz Chagla noted that while Goswami's comments targeted the Congress and its president Sonia Gandhi, he did not make any statement that would cause public disharmony or incite violence between different religious groups.
Citing observations made by the Supreme Court that India's freedom will rest safe as long as journalists can speak to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal, the bench in its order said free citizens cannot exist when the news media is chained to adhere to any one position.
"We cannot have the spectacle of a Damocles' sword hanging over the head of a journalist while conducting a public debate. India is now a mature democracy," the HC said.
"Seventy years into our republic, we cannot be seen to be skating on thin ice so much that mere mention of a place of worship will lead to animosity or hatred among 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," the court said.
While admitting for final hearing the petition filed by Goswami seeking to quash the two FIRs, the court directed the police not to take any coercive action until the disposal of the plea.
Two First Information Reports were filed against Goswami -- one in Nagpur, which was later transferred to N M Joshi Marg police station in Mumbai following directions from the Supreme Court and another at Pydhonie police station in Mumbai.
The one filed in Nagpur was about a news show aired on the channel on April 21 about the Palghar incident where two religious leaders and their driver were lynched.
In the order, the high court noted that prima facie the petitioner as a journalist questioned the response or rather the alleged non-response of the Congress party and Sonia Gandhi on the killing of the two Hindu Sadhus.
"It is quite clear that the object of or the target of the petitioners attack was primarily Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party. There was no mention of either the Muslim or the Christian community," the court said.
While the petitioner (Goswami) accused the Congress Party and Sonia Gandhi of having a communal mindset, the court does not find any statement that can be construed to be against any religious community, the judges added.
"...it cannot be said that any offence has been committed by the petitioner of provoking rioting or promoting or attempting to promote... disharmony or feelings of enmity between different religious groups," the court said.
"A view may be taken that the language of the petitioner was quite sharp and vicious; it may also be construed as an act of defaming the Congress party or its president," the court said.
The Pydhonie case followed a show aired by Republic TV on April 29 whereGoswami referred to migrants gathering near a mosque outside the Bandra railway terminus during lockdown.
The court noted that the show's transcript shows that Goswami had said if a similar incident had occurred outside the Siddhivinayak temple, he would have questioned it too.
Goswami's lawyers Harish Salve and Milind Sathe had alleged that the Congress was behind multiple FIRs filed against the anchor across the country, and the two FIRs in question were aimed at harassing and intimidating him due to political animosity.
Advocates Kapil Sibal and Raja Thakare, appearing for the Maharashtra government, had opposed the petition and said a journalist has the right to freedom of expression but not to declare that a person was killed only because he was of a particular religion.
Reading out the transcripts of the two news shows, they had argued that there was a clear attempt to incite communal violence.