The Supreme Court on Monday extended the protection to Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami against any coercive action and reserved its verdict on his plea seeking quashing of the first information report lodged against him by Mumbai Police for allegedly hurting religious sentiments by making some remarks during his news show.
Besides this FIR lodged against Goswami on May 2, several complaints and multiple FIRs were earlier registered against him in various states over his alleged defamatory statements against Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi in a news show on Palghar mob-lynching.
Goswami claimed in the top court that he was interrogated by Mumbai Police for over 12 hours with regard to FIR on alleged defamatory statements and one of the two investigating officers probing the case against him has tested Covid-19 positive.
A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah said it would pronounce the verdict later this week on Goswami's plea seeking quashing of fresh FIR as well as on the application of Maharashtra government alleging that the accused has been 'browbeating' the police by 'creating fear psychosis'.
During the hearing, senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Goswami, said that this case is all about a political party targeting a journalist as the complainants are members of one particular party.
He said they (political party) have a problem with the government and they want to teach this journalist a lesson as the real purpose is to stifle an unpleasant voice.
"This will have a chilling effect on freedom of press," he said, adding that press is not institutionalised but other institutions are protected and there are safeguards, wherein judges, MPs and bureaucrats are protected.
"We must draw a balance between both," the bench said.
Salve said that after the apex court's hearing on April 24, a notice was served on Goswami on April 25 requiring his presence before police the next day in connection with the case.
The bench told Salve that points raised by him could be argued before the Bombay High Court either in an anticipatory bail plea or petition for quashing of the case.
It said the court can give liberty to Goswami to approach the High Court after the expiry of interim protection already given to him by the apex court earlier in the cases related to Palghar incident.
It said if Goswami want quashing of the FIRs lodged in Bombay, including the fresh one, he can move the high court.
The bench said it had earlier intervened in the matter due to multiplicity of FIRs arising out of the same cause of action.
"We must ensure somebody is not subject to harassment but we should not create an environment where anybody in particular is exempted from the normal course of proceedings," the bench observed.
Salve argued that the probe in the Palghar incident remarks should be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
He questioned the manner in which Goswami was asked questions during the investigation and said he was also asked details about the editorial team and content by the police.
Goswami was repeatedly asked if he had defamed the Congress president and whose money was invested in the channel, Salve said.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Centre, told the bench that this is a peculiar case as the accused is saying that police is pressurising him and interrogating him for 12 hours whereas the police has also come to the court to insulate it from any pressure and threat.
He said that since the accused has made allegations against the police, which too has made certain accusations, then the court must look at the possibility of having an independent investigation agency to probe it.
Mehta said this is a case where the way in which the state police has acted in an undesirable manner and if an offence is prima facie made out then the case should be handled by an independent agency, which does not need any insulation and the accused cannot say that he is being harassed.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for the Maharashtra government, said this is a clear violation of Article 19 and he cannot stigmatise people by way of sensationalising things.
The senior lawyer urged the court to ask the CBI for the report in the case and for giving him extension of interim protection.
At the fag end of the hearing, the bench pointed out that the multiple FIRs are word-to-word same.
Sibal said that if they are same, then court can quash them as it is quite possible that Congress workers may have placed copy of the first FIR, when they went ahead with lodging of complaints.
On April 24, the top court had granted three-week protection to Goswami against any coercive steps in connection with some FIRs lodged against him in various states for alleged defamatory statements made during news shows on Palghar mob-lynching of three persons, including two saints in Maharashtra.
The May 2 FIR was lodged in Mumbai against him and two others for allegedly hurting religious sentiments by making derogatory remark regarding a mosque located in suburban Bandra, a Mumbai Police officer had said.
Hundreds of migrant workers had gathered in Bandra on April 14 demanding transport arrangements to go back to their native places, hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced extension of the nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19 till May 3.
The FIR was lodged in Pydhonie police station in south Mumbai on May 2 by Irfan Abubakar Sheikh, secretary of Raza Education Welfare Society.