Editors Guild of India has right to free speech, says CJI

Supreme Court asks complainants to file an affidavit within two weeks on why case against EGI should not be quashed; the Chief Justice also asks how these reports are promoting enmity among groups

September 15, 2023 06:33 pm | Updated 11:12 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud speaks during an event, in New Delhi, on September 15, 2023.

Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud speaks during an event, in New Delhi, on September 15, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud on September 15 said the Editors Guild of India (EGI) may be right or wrong in its report about “partisan media coverage” of the Manipur violence, but it has a right to free speech to put forth its views in print.

The complaints which led to the registration of FIRs against senior journalists, the members and president of the EGI, did not contain even a “whisper of the offences alleged against them”, the Chief Justice said.

The Bench, also comprising Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, gave the complainants two weeks to give an affidavit providing reasons why the FIRs against EGI president Seema Mustafa and senior journalists Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor should not be quashed by the top court.

SC grills complainants

“Tell us how any of these offences are made out from their report… Show us how Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code [promoting enmity between different groups] is made out. What is happening? They [EGI] are entitled to put forth their views. This is just a report. Where did you get all these offences from? Section 153A? You have said they have offended under Section 200 IPC [giving false declaration to a court]. Where did they give a declaration to a court? How is Section 200 implicated here?” Chief Justice Chandrachud grilled the complainants, represented by senior advocate Guru Krishnakumar.

The court, which had initially suggested shifting the FIRs to Delhi, upped the ante when the complainants repeatedly referred to the “damage done by the EGI” in Manipur by its report.

“Since you raise that issue, tell us first about how these offences are made out. File an affidavit. Put it on record. Tell us why the complaints and the FIRs should not be quashed… The Army wrote to the EGI saying there was partisan reporting being done in Manipur. The EGI sends a team of senior journalists to the ground to intervene and find out. They submit a report… They may be right or wrong, that is what free speech is all about,” the Chief Justice reacted.

‘You assume EGI is false’

Chief Justice Chandrachud said that media reports may go wrong. “Will you charge all journalists under Section 153A then?” he asked.

“We are concerned. The moment somebody puts something in print, it may be wrong, you lodge an FIR under Section 153A? Your entire complaint is a counter-narrative of the government. You assume what the EGI said is false. Every paragraph of your complaint says ‘false, false’. Making a false statement in an article is not an offence under Section 153A,” the Chief Justice told the complainants.

Mr. Krishnakumar, at one point, suggested that his client would withdraw their complaints provided that the EGI withdrew its report. He finally agreed to file an affidavit in response..

‘Counter-views also published’

Senior advocate Shyam Divan, for the EGI and the journalists, said that counter-views to the report have been published on the same web page of the editors’ body along with the report.

“People can read both our views and their counter-views and make up their minds,” Mr. Divan submitted.

The EGI said that it had visited Manipur on the Army’s invitation to make an “objective assessment” of the “unethical and ex parte reporting” by the vernacular media.

Seeking transfer

Mr. Divan said that the Manipur High Court had already entertained a public interest petition against the EGI, and sought that the case be transferred to Delhi.

“The manner in which the Chief Justice of the Manipur High Court has entertained that PIL… let me not, as the head of the family, say more… Surely there are more pressing matters to be entertained than these kinds of PILs,” Chief Justice Chandrachud observed.

The court said that the interim protection from coercive action against the four EGI members would continue.

Controlling the narrative

Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, for the Manipur government, objected to shifting the case to Delhi, but also urged the top court to not open its ‘quashing jurisdiction’. At one point, seeing the Bench press the complainants to justify the offences made out by them, Mr. Mehta changed tack to say “let the case go to the Delhi High Court… let us not travel that [quashing the FIRs] path”.

Mr. Mehta said that the State’s worry was “slightly bigger”, claiming that shifting the case to Delhi or quashing the FIRs would give an impetus for “any journalist to now go [to Manipur] and put forth views and counter-views”.

“If that happens, we may not be able to control the narrative. There will be other narrative buildings. I am not making any value judgments, but any number of people can go and build a narrative and put out views and counter-views,” he said.

Partisan reporting claims

The initial complaint against the EGI president and the three EGI three members was filed by Ngangom Sarat Singh, a retired engineer with the State government. The second FIR was lodged by Sorokhaibam Thoudam Sangita of Khurai in the Imphal East district.

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 that there were indications that the State leadership had “turned partisan” during the conflict.

Trying to ‘provoke clashes’

On September 4, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh said that a police case had been filed on the basis of a complaint against the president and three members of the EGI and accused them of trying to “provoke clashes” in the State.

The EGI members were booked under various sections of the IPC including Sections 153A, 200, and 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), and under provisions of the Information Technology Act and Press Council Act. The second FIR added Section 499 (defamation) of the IPC to these charges

The Manipur government had earlier filed an FIR against a three-member fact-finding team of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) for its report on the ethnic conflict.

More than 160 people have lost their lives and several hundreds have been injured since ethnic clashes broke out in Manipur on May 3, after a Tribal Solidarity March was organised in the hill districts to protest against developments in the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status.

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