The Supreme Court Friday granted Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami protection for three weeks from “coercive steps” following multiple FIRs against him by Congress leaders and workers over his alleged derogatory remarks against party chief Sonia Gandhi during a news show on the lynching of three persons, including two sadhus, in Palghar in Maharashtra.
The bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah which heard Goswami’s urgent plea — it was filed Thursday night and heard Friday morning — said: “For a period of three weeks, the petitioner shall be protected against any coercive steps arising out of and in relation to the above FIR arising out of the telecast which took place on 21 April 2020.”
The bench, which said Goswami could seek anticipatory bail during this period, issued notice to the respondents, including the Centre. The notice is returnable in eight weeks. The bench stayed all FIRs, filed in different states, except one. It stayed all proceedings on any other FIR or complaint that may be filed regarding the April 21 telecast.
It transferred the FIR registered at Sadar police station, Nagpur to the N M Joshi Marg police station in Mumbai where an FIR was lodged on an alleged attack on Goswami and his wife when they were returning home from work on the night of April 22. The court asked him to cooperate with the investigation. On the request of senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, Goswami’s counsel, the bench directed that “in addition to the personal security provided to the petitioner, if a request is made by the petitioner to the Commissioner of Police, Mumbai for providing adequate security at the residence of the petitioner or at the studio of Republic TV in Mumbai, such a request shall be expeditiously considered and, based on the threat perception, police protection shall be provided, if considered appropriate and for the period during which the threat perception continues”.
It declined to pass any direction restraining Goswami from making any controversial statement in future. Justice Chandrachud said “there should be no restraint on the media. I am averse to imposing any restrictions on media”.
On the Palghar incident, Rohatgi said two sadhus were lynched by a crowd of people in the presence of twelve police personnel on April 16. He said somebody took a video of the sadhus being lynched which showed “police is standing by and virtually complicit”. He said there was no angle of an inter-religious fight.
“My client brought out this incident which is recorded in a video… show is of 45 minutes. He deals with questions of public interest… He raised questions on the role of police by asking what is the police doing in that state… Without anybody inviting religious issue, how were the sadhus lynched,” Rohatgi said.
He said it was on this issue that Goswami posed some questions to the Congress chief, saying when people of the minority are killed, the Congress party is the first to raise it, so why isn’t the party chief raising the issue of the lynching of sadhus. “The sadhus had done nothing. In that kind of a political debate, he raised the question,” he said.
Incensed by this programme, a chain of complaints and FIRs, he said, had been lodged in various states, most ruled by the Congress party. He said all complaints and FIRs were principally based on the defamation of the Congress chief — he went on to read some of the tweets by Congress leaders.
Rohatgi said it was settled law that a defamation case can only be filed by the aggrieved person and no one else. The complaints, he said, are nearly identical and the sections invoked are bailable. “He (Goswami) is in fact talking about peace and why is the government not acting… police was virtually complicit in a senseless killing,” he said.
“When you have a public debate… you have provocative questions. If sadhus have been killed and there is turmoil in the Hindu community, then why are you not raising any questions… This is the nature of the dispute,” Rohatgi said.
He said the court had always protected free speech and in this case “the idea is to muzzle the press… involve the channel and editor in these kinds of frivolous complaints”.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for Maharashtra, referred to the alleged remarks made by Goswami and asked “is this freedom of speech”. He wondered how a writ petition under Article 32 could be on “fake freedom of speech”.
“You are trying to ignite communal violence here by putting Hindus against the minority,” Sibal said. Making a reference to the Kanhaiya Kumar case, he said “here you are not allowing us to investigate, while in the Kanhaiya case, it was”.
“You are fuelling communal violence,” Sibal said. “Somebody has filed a complaint. Police will investigate to find out if it can be prosecuted. It’s a settled position that if an FIR is lodged and upon reading the FIR an offence is made out, then there is no question of quashing it,” he said.
“If Congress people have filed FIRs, what’s the problem… Is Goswami so special that he will not appear? Don’t BJP people file FIRs?… Rahul Gandhi is appearing in a defamation case. There is no question of protection,” Sibal said.
At this point, Justice Chandrachud said multiple FIRs have been filed on the same cause of action and there is ground for moving under Article 32.
Sibal replied it can be for clubbing of cases but not for seeking protection or grant for bail. He said police may decide to add Section 124A — sedition — tomorrow. “How can we say now what the police might or might not do… Let the police investigate and come to conclusions,” he said.
Senior advocate Manish Singhvi, appearing for Rajasthan, said two of the sections in the FIR were non-bailable. He contended that there was a prima facie case. “There is no denial of the statement. The context in which the statement was made is clearly covered under 153A. It’s a prima facie case of investigation under these two sections,” he said.
He said the “context in which it (statement) was given… is religious. FIR can be registered against any person anywhere”.
Senior advocate Vivek Tankha, who appeared for Chhattisgarh, said it was a “case of misuse of the broadcasting licence”. He said it had hurt sentiments and had it not been for COVID-19, there would have been protests across the country. “The gentleman who has come before the court is promoting communal disharmony… vitiated the atmosphere at the time of lockdown,” he said.
“Today you cannot imagine the outrage… and the man is seeking protection of this court after inciting people,” Tankha said, urging the court not to grant relief to Goswami “otherwise we would be inching towards another division of the country”.
“These people have broadcasting licences, so can they say what they want and whenever they want. If people see that such things get protected, they will be encouraged to say more. It’s people like Goswami who should be stopped from saying things… protect the integrity of the country,” he said, adding that millions of people were affected by the developments.
Countering this, Rohatgi said only Congress workers have filed cases. He opposed the argument that Goswami’s statement was religious in nature and said he had only spoken of sadhus being lynched in the presence of policemen. Goswami, he said, had questioned the silence of the Congress party and had said the silence was complicity. He denied any incitement on communal lines, reiterating “sadhus are being killed… Goswami never spoke of Hindus or Muslims”.
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