The Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to fix a date to hear a plea challenging the Tripura Police decision to invoke the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, against two Supreme Court lawyers, who visited the state as part of an independent fact-finding team following reports of communal violence, and a journalist.
The team had published a report which alleged that a few Hindu organisations had unleashed violence in areas of minority habitations, including mosques, homes, and shops owned by members of the minority community.
In their plea, advocates Mukesh and Ansar Indori, said UAPA was invoked against them “to suppress” their “fact-finding report” titled “Humanity Under Attack in Tripura #Muslim Lives Matter”. Shyam Meera Singh, a journalist with Newsclick, said UAPA was invoked against him for “merely tweeting (that) ‘Tripura is burning’.”
The petition was mentioned before a bench headed by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana by Advocate Prashant Bhushan. The bench initially asked the counsel why he had not moved the Tripura High Court. Bhushan said the petitioners have also challenged the provisions of the UAPA and were “imminently under threat”.
The petition said the state government wanted to “monopolise the flow of information and facts… from the affected areas by invoking (UAPA)… against members of civil society including advocates and journalists who have made the effort to bring facts in relation to the targeted violence in the public domain”.
“If the state is allowed to criminalise the very act of fact-finding and reporting — and that too under the stringent provisions of the UAPA in which anticipatory bail is barred and the idea of bail is a remote possibility — then the only facts that will come in the public domain are those that are convenient to the state due to the ‘chilling effect’ on the freedom of speech and expression of members of civil society,” it said
“If the quest for truth and reporting thereof itself is criminalised, then the victim in the process is the idea of justice” and “such circumstances strike at the very foundations of a participative democratic society as it curbs the ‘free flow of information and ideas’,” said the plea.
The petitioners also sought a direction declaring Sections 2(1)(o) read with Section 13 of the UAPA, 1967, and Section 45(d)(5) of the Act as unconstitutional. They said that the definition of ‘unlawful activities’ in the Act “prohibits an innocuous speech by threat of punishment… casts a ‘wide net’ on freedom of speech and expression and makes even possession of documentational literature, reporting of information, expression of ideas, thoughts, and discussions which are no threat to security of India and have no tendency to create public disorder punishable under Section 13 of the Act”.
The “overbroad language…leaves open the possibility that the person criticising measures of government or acts of public officials, might also come within the ambit,” said the plea, adding that the definition “fails to define criminal offence with sufficient definiteness and is so ‘vague’ so as to make its application dependent solely on the discretion of police machinery”.
“The vagueness…the ‘wide net’ that it casts on freedom of speech and expression; its tendency to bring within its fold mere criticism of government policies or actions… without any effect on public order or security, sovereignty and integrity of India; and its indiscriminate use…against those critical of the government in view of the absolute bar on anticipatory bail in Section 45(d)(4) of the Act of 1967 and almost impossibility of securing bail under Section 45(d)(5) of the Act of 1967, produces a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of speech and expression and the sections read together are violative of Articles 14, 19(1)(a) & 21 of the Constitution,” said the plea.
Last week, the Tripura Police booked 102 social media account holders under similar charges, for allegedly spreading “objectionable news items/ statements” regarding the recent violence, and served notices to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube asking them to delete these accounts and provide particulars of the individuals operating them.