Vikash Sharma

In a major decision over journalists’ right to free speech, the Supreme Court extended protection for the three Editors Guild of India members from arrest for allegedly releasing a "biased and factually inaccurate" report on the ethnic strife in the northeastern state.

The Supreme Court observed that it would be “egregious” to prosecute journalists for false statements in their reports. Earlier, FIRs were lodged against them for a controversial report on media coverage and government handling of ethnic clashes in Manipur. However, the Apex Court declined to quash the FIRs against them.

A CJI-led bench said Section 153A of IPC (promoting enmity) could not be invoked for such false statements. A bench headed by CJI D.Y. Chandrachud, and comprising J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, questioned the criminal prosecution of journalists under Section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) of the IPC for making an incorrect statement in the report.

"Making a false statement in an article is not an offence under Section 153A. It may be incorrect. Will you prosecute journalists for 153A?" orally observed the bench.

Calling an NGO’s complaint against three Editors Guild members a “counter-narrative of the government”, a CJI-led bench said the FIRs lodged against them did not “reveal even a whisper” of the offences alleged in the complaint, reported TOI.

CJI DY Chandrachud and Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra said even if the report was false, journalists could not be prosecuted under Section 153A.

“Assuming that the EGI report is false, it is not an offence under Section 153A. There are falsehoods in articles published across the country every day, do we prosecute all journalists under Section 153A?” the CJI said as quoted by TOI.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Manipur government, requested the top court to restrain itself from entering into the merits of the case while hearing the writ petition instituted under Article 32 of the Constitution. Further, he urged in anticipation that if the apex court proposes to order transfer of the petitioners’ plea to the Delhi High Court, the same should not be construed as a reflection on the Manipur HC.

The Supreme Court extended its order granting interim protection for another two weeks and asked Manipur Police and the complainant to file their response in the meantime setting out how the offence of promoting enmity between different ethnic groups and other charges were made out against the accused journalists for releasing the report.

On September 11, the top court had indicated that it may transfer the plea seeking quashing of FIRs and other ancillary relief to the Delhi High Court and asked Mehta to obtain instructions from the Manipur government in that regard by September 15.

In its initial order passed on September 6, the top court issued notice and directed Manipur Police to not take any coercive steps against president of the EGI and three editors -- Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan, and Sanjay Kapoor till further orders.

The Supreme Court had agreed to urgently hear the plea filed by the EGI members who visited the northeastern state last month to study media reportage of the ethnic violence and the circumstantial aspects, who later published a report in New Delhi claiming that the media's reports on the ethnic violence in Manipur were one-sided, and accused the state leadership of being partisan.

"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 24-page EGI report had said in its conclusions and recommendations.

(With IANS Inputs)