Friday, December 8, 2023

‘It’s a report, not an offence committed on ground’: SC on FIRs against Editor Guild members

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A bench headed by Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud, while extending the interim protection granted to members of the Editors Guild of India over its Manipur fact-finding report, said that the case pertained to just publication of a report and was not about someone committing an offence on the ground.

“It is a report after all. The basic question he [Sibal] is arguing is they have only done a report that may be a matter of their [EGI’s] subjective opinion… This is not a case of somebody on the ground having committed an offence… They have published a report,” the Chief Justice said.

The top court on Monday extended the interim protection granted to members of the journalist body over its investigation on the media coverage of ethnic violence in Manipur till September 11.

Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal said that the Editors Guide did not voluntarily go to Manipur but was invited by the Army.

“We did not volunteer to go there,” Sibal told the court, according to Live Law. “It is the Army which requested us…Please see the letter of the Army to the Editors Guild. This is an invitation by the Army to the Editors Guild saying see what is happening there – unethical, ex-parte reporting by the vernacular media. It is at their invitation that we went.”

“They wanted us to make an objective assessment of what is happening on the ground… We published our report on September 2. On September 3 night, we were prosecuted for offences under the Indian Penal Code. The Chief Minister also makes statements against us… How can we be prosecuted for publication of a report,” Sibal asked the court.

The CJI was puzzled why the Army wanted the EGI to go to Manipur.

The Chief Justice further decided to examine Sibal’s request to allow the EGI to approach the Delhi High Court, instead of the Manipur High Court, with a plea to quash the FIRs.

“We will not quash the FIRs here… but we will examine whether such a plea could be heard by the Delhi High Court,” Chief Justice Chandrachud said.

The court scheduled the case on September 15 for hearing on this point.

The cases have been filed against the authors of the fact-finding report – Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor – and the president of the Editors Guild of India, Seema Mustafa.

The FIRs were registered under the sections of the Indian Penal Code relating to promoting enmity between groups, injuring or defiling a place of worship, uttering words with deliberate intent to hurt religious feelings and statements conducing to public mischief.

The FIR is based on the complaint filed by one Ngangom Sarat, a Meitei activist. He said that the report is false in entirety and “sponsored by Kuki militants.”

The compliant refers to one photo caption in the report. The caption, the complaint said, said that smoke was rising from a Kuki home – but it was in fact the home of a forest official. The Editor’s Guild had recognised the error in caption and said on X, “We regret the error that crept in at the photo editing stage.”

The EGI report had said that several reports on violence coming out of Manipur were “one-sided”. The media based out of Imphal, according to the EGI report, had “transformed into Meitei media”.

“This is a strong arm tactic by the state government which amounts to intimidation of the apex media body of the country,” read a statement by Press Club of India.

“At a time when violence-marred Manipur needs utmost attention of the government, such a move by the state government would only make the matters worse and would be seen as a deliberate attempt to suppress the
truth. It is a case of shooting the messenger rather than taking measures to restore peace in the state,” read the statement.

This is the second fact-finding team that has seen police action after publishing a report on Manipur. In July, a case was registered against the members of the National Federation of Indian Women’s team in Manipur.

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