STRESSING THAT “a citizen has a right to criticise or comment upon the measures undertaken by the Government and its functionaries, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law”, the Supreme Court Thursday quashed the FIR registered by Himachal Pradesh Police against journalist Vinod Dua for sedition, public mischief and other offences over the contents of a talk show broadcast on YouTube last year.
A bench of Justices U U Lalit and Vineet Saran said every journalist is entitled to protection specified under the Supreme Court’s 1962 judgment in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State Of Bihar case. That judgment upheld the Constitutional validity of IPC section 124A (sedition) but made clear that its operation be limited “only to such activities…involving incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace”.
This is the first time that the apex court has explicitly linked the Kedar Nath Singh judgment to the protection of journalists from abuse of the sedition law.
The bench ruled that “every journalist will be entitled to protection in terms of Kedar Nath Singh, as every prosecution under Sections 124A (sedition) and 505 (public mischief) of the IPC must be in strict conformity with the scope and ambit of said sections as explained in, and completely in tune with the law laid down in Kedar Nath Singh”.
The 1962 judgment overturned a Patna High Court ruling that upheld the conviction of Kedar Nath Singh, a Communist Party activist, for his statements against the police and the Congress party at a gathering in Bihar’s Barauni village on May 26, 1953.
Recalling the principles laid down in that ruling, the bench said Thursday that “it is only when the words or expressions have pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that Sections 124A and 505 of the IPC must step in”.
The court, however, rejected Dua’s prayer in his plea that no FIR be registered against a person belonging to the media with at least 10 years of standing unless cleared by a Committee “to be constituted by every state government, the composition of which should comprise of the Chief Justice of the High Court or a designated Judge, the leader of the Opposition and the Home Minister of the State”.
The bench said “any relief granted…would certainly…amount to encroachment upon the field reserved for the legislature”.
Thursday’s ruling comes three days after another bench of the Supreme Court said it is of the view that Section 124A of the IPC will need interpretation, especially on its application with regard to freedom of the press.
Dua had moved the court on June 13, 2020, seeking quashing of the FIR registered on May 6, 2020, at the Kumarsain police station in Shimla. The FIR was registered on a complaint filed by Ajay Shyam, a local BJP leader, that Dua “had asserted that the Prime Minister used deaths and terror attacks to garner votes and that the Prime Minister garnered votes through acts of terrorism” in the Hindi talk show uploaded on March 30, 2020.
But the apex court bench, which perused the English translation of the show’s contents, concluded that “on facts, it has been established that the statements attributed to the petitioner” were not made in the show.
“No such assertions find place in the true translation nor were any objections raised that the translated version was in any way incorrect. The petitioner did say that the air strikes by India on Balakot and attacks on Pathankot and Pulwama were used as political events to garner votes but no allegations were made against the Prime Minister as was stated in the FIR,” the bench said.
On comments in the show regarding the Government’s response to the Covid crisis, the court said that “it is common knowledge that the countries all over the world found themselves wanting in terms of infrastructure and facilities to cope up with the effects of Covid-19 pandemic”.
It said: “Considering the size of the population of this country, the testing facilities to gauge and check the spread and effect of the pandemic, at least in the initial stages of the surge, were not exactly adequate. If in that light, the petitioner made any comments about testing facilities or PPE Suits, N-95 masks and masks of 3 ply, those comments in the first two statements cannot be anything other than appraisal of the situation.”
The complainant had also referred to some statements in the show on the movement of migrant labourers in the first lockdown.
On this, the bench referred to the court’s March 31, 2020 order, wherein it had asked states to provide transport and food to labourers intending to return to their home states. It said that “the developments referred to…show that the movement of migrant workers back to their home town or villages had posed an alarming situation”.
“If the petitioner in his talk show uploaded on 30.03.2020, that is even before the matter was taken up by this Court, made certain assertions…he would be within his rights to say that as a journalist he was touching upon issues of great concern so that adequate attention could be bestowed to the prevailing problems,” the bench said.
“It cannot be said that the petitioner was spreading any false information or rumours…In the circumstances, these statements can neither be taken to be an attempt to incite migrant workers to start moving towards their hometowns or villages nor can it be taken to be an incitement for causing any food riots,” it said.
The court said that the “statements by the petitioner…if read in the light of the principles emanating from the decision in Kedar Nath Singh and against the backdrop of the circumstances when they were made, can at best be termed as expression of disapprobation of actions of the Government and its functionaries so that prevailing situation could be addressed quickly and efficiently”.
It said: “They were certainly not made with the intent to incite people or showed a tendency to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resorting to violence. The petitioner was within the permissible limits laid down in the decision of this Court in KedarNath Singh”.
The bench said it is “therefore, of the firm view that the prosecution of the petitioner for the offences punishable under Sections 124A and 505 (1) (b) of the IPC would be unjust”. “Those offences, going by the allegations in the FIR and other attending circumstances, are not made out at all and any prosecution in respect thereof would be violative of the rights of the petitioner guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution,” it said.
On the charge against Dua under Section 501 of the IPC — printing or engraving a matter that is defamatory to any person — the bench said that cognisance with respect to an offence of defamation can be taken by a court only upon a complaint made by the person aggrieved, which is absent in the case.
The court also rejected the contention that some of the statements amounted to circulating a false alarm, which is an offence under the Disaster Management Act.
Incidentally, the case was initially heard by a three-judge bench, including Justice Mohan M Shantanagoudar. However, Justice Shantanagoudar passed away at a private hospital in Gurgaon on April 25 this year following medical complications.