The Supreme Court on Friday termed the complaint against the Editors Guild of India and its four members a “counter-narrative of the government” and asked as to how the offence of promoting enmity between different groups was made out against the journalists' body which merely gave a report at Army's request.
While extending the protection from coercive action to the EGI members by two more weeks, a bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra sought the response of the complainant and said it will examine the complaint which formed the basis of the FIRs against them.
The court observed the EGI team went to Manipur after the Army wrote to it about “partisan reporting” on the ground by vernacular media.
“They go to the ground. They may be right or wrong but that is what free speech is all about," the CJI said.
The top court was also critical of the fact that the Manipur high court entertained the PIL against the EGI.
The CJI was referring to the plea filed by the International Meitei Forum seeking quashing of the report submitted by the EGI.
"The manner in which that PIL is entertained by the Chief Justice of the high court...let me not say much more as the head of the family. But surely there are more pressing matters to be entertained than these kinds of PILs,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Manipur government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, said the top court may protect the EGI and its members for some more time and transfer the plea to the Delhi high court for being dealt with on merits.
However, the top court took serious note of vehement submission of senior advocate Guru Krishnakumar, appearing for the complainant, that the EGI members have committed criminal offences by making “sweeping one-sided" allegations without even making me a party.
The bench asked as to how the offences under Sections 195 (promoting enmity between different groups) and 200 (making false declaration in courts) of the IPC were made out against the EGI members.
“Let us see Section 200. This deals with making a false declaration before a court...Therefore this is subject to Section 195 of CrPC. Where was the declaration made before the court? This is just a report," the bench said.
Observing that the EGI was entitled to putting forth a viewpoint, the bench said the complainant has to make out a case on his own and show the ingredients of an offence are there.
“You have to show us in a case like this that your complaint makes out a case. Does it even make out a whisper of the ingredients of the offence,” the CJI asked.
“We are also concerned because this can't be that the moment somebody says something in print, a case is filed. Your entire complaint is the counter-narrative of the government. You have basically put forth a counter-narrative, assuming that what they have said is false,” it said.
“Assuming that what they said is false and every para is false, making a false statement in an article is not an offence under section 153A (of the IPC). It may be incorrect. Incorrect things are reported all across the country every day, will you prosecute journalists for 153A,” the bench said.
The solicitor general urged that keeping in mind the sensitivity of the situation, the court should not say all these things and refer the matter to the Delhi high court.
"Mr Solicitor General, the Army writes to the Editors Guild of India. The Army says that there is partisan reporting, please come and make a proper report. They go to the ground. They may be right or wrong but that is what free speech is all about," the CJI said.
The counsel for the complainant said if the EGI withdraws the report, the complainant will not press the complaint.
At the outset, the solicitor general objected to the Supreme Court entertaining the petition and said the petitioners should avail of the remedy before the high court.
“During last 30 days, virtual hearings were held every day and 572 virtual hearings took place and 42 non-locals appeared in virtual hearings,” the law officer said, adding that senior lawyers like Anand Grover and Colin Gonsalves, who have been alleging difficulties in the HC, have also appeared there.
On September 11, the top court extended till Friday the protection from coercive action to the EGI and its members. It had also sought the view of the Manipur government on whether to transfer their plea for quashing the FIRs and other relief to the Delhi high court for adjudication.
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh had said on September 4 a police case had been filed on a complaint against the president and three members of the Editors Guild of India, and accused them of trying to "provoke clashes" in the state.
Besides EGI president Seema Mustafa, those who have been booked are senior journalists Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor. They visited the state between August 7 and 10 to study media reporting on the ethnic violence.
The Editors Guild, in a report published on September 2, slammed the internet ban in the state as being detrimental to media reportage, criticised what it termed as one-sided reporting by some media outlets and claimed there were indications that the state leadership had "turned partisan" during the conflict.
"They are anti-state, anti-national and anti-establishment (people) who came to pour venom. Had I known it before, I would not have allowed them to enter," the chief minister had said.
The EGI said in its report it received several representations about the media in Manipur playing a partisan role in the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Meitei and Kuki-Chin communities.
"There are clear indications that the leadership of the state became partisan during the conflict. It should have avoided taking sides in the ethnic conflict but it failed to do its duty as a democratic government which should have represented the entire state," the report said.
The Editors' Guild members were booked under various sections of the IPC including 153A (promoting enmity between two communities), 200 (using false declaration as true), 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), and under provisions of the Information Technology Act and Press Council Act.