State force should never be used to either browbeat a political opinion or journalists, the Supreme Court has said, calling for "introspection from the political class across the country" over debasement in dialogue which is taking place even as it asked scribes to be more responsible in the “twitter age”.
A bench comprising Justices S K Kaul and M M Sundresh made these observations while quashing the FIRs against editors of a news web portal and others, in connection with articles published in West Bengal.
In a country which prides itself on its diversity, there are bound to be different perceptions and opinions which would include political opinions, the apex court said. That is very essence of a democracy, it said. “State force should never be used to either browbeat a political opinion or the journalists suffer the consequences of what is already in public domain. “We hasten to add that this does not take away the responsibility of the journalists in how they report the matters, more so in a “twitter age,” the bench said.
The observations came after senior advocate Siddhartha Dave, appearing on behalf of the West Bengal government, informed the bench that the state has decided to withdraw the FIRs registered against Nupur J Sharma, the editor of English language Opindia.com, YouTuber Ajeet Bharti and others including its founder and CEO.
The top court said that it was not inclined to let go off the opportunity of saying something which is troubling the society and the court. “It is undoubtedly the debasement in the dialogue which is taking place which needs introspection from the political class across the country. In a country which prides itself on its diversity, there are bound to be different perceptions and opinions which would include political opinions.
“The present proceedings in a way emanate from the same. We say so as what the petitioners have done is to reproduce what the political class has stated against each other and which is already in public domain, an aspect pointed out eminently by senior counsel for the petitioners,” it said.
The bench said that no doubt by the very nature of the job required to be performed by the political class, at times their exchanges may get heated. “But it should not explode. We are sure difference in perceptions can be expressed in better language,” it said in its order uploaded today.
The top court had earlier stayed further proceedings in a fresh FIR lodged in West Bengal against them. On June 26 last year, the top court had stayed further proceedings in three FIRs lodged in West Bengal against petitioners.
In their intervention application, Sharma and others had said that they are constrained to move the top court due to persistent hounding and victimisation by the West Bengal government, who in its endeavour to scuttle inconvenient media reports registered multiple FIRs against them.
The application had further said, "That the order dated June 26, 2020, came as a respite to the petitioners whose honour, life and liberty were sought to be repeatedly undermined by the state..." However, "It appears that the respondents are unrelenting in the efforts to persecute the petitioners/ applicants as the petitioners/applicants have recently on August 5, been served with a notice under section 41A of the CrPC from CID, West Bengal concerning FIR registered with Bhadreshwar police station, it had said.
It had said that the FIR relates to media reports published in 'opindia.com' about Telenipara communal riots of May 2020 and were registered contemporaneously around the same time as FIRs, which forms the subject matter of the writ petition.
The petitioners had said the FIR came to their notice only on the receipt of the notice under section 41 CrPC on August 5 this year requiring them to appear before the investigating officer on August 13, but later the investigating officer through an email dated August 12 asked the petitioner to appear on August 23.
They had sought a stay on the investigation emanating from the FIR registered at Bhadreshwar police station and the notice issued to them for appearing before the investigating officer. They had also sought quashing of the FIR.
On June 26 last year, the apex court, while staying the three FIRs, issued notices to the West Bengal government and the Centre seeking their replies on the plea. The main writ petition filed by Sharma and others including the founder and CEO of the news portal and the editor of its Hindi language publications claimed that the West Bengal government and its "authoritarian Kolkata Police" are misusing FIRs and "brute police powers" to intimidate journalists.
"The petitioners are constrained to invoke the extraordinary writ jurisdiction of this court under Article 32 of the Constitution against the patently extortionist and mala fide actions of the Government of West Bengal to impose illegal censorship in the state by threatening, scuttling, and gagging honest media houses through misuse of state police," the plea claimed.
The petitioners had claimed they were informed that the cause of one of the FIRs lodged by police was an article published by the news web portal on the issue of alleged hiding of data related to COVID-19. The plea had claimed that one of the FIRs lodged pertained to a news report published by the web portal in October last year. It alleged that to undermine the freedom of the press, the state has rather chosen to "hound down" the petitioners by registering multiple FIRs in order to "Bargain for deletion of news articles by putting the petitioner's life and liberty at bait".
It had claimed the state and the police are not only intimidating the journalists but also threatening their family members to seek deletion of media reports which bring to the public notice "The actual state of affairs in the state of West Bengal during these difficult times". It had also alleged that the police had intimidated some of the petitioners to get the news articles deleted. "Accordingly, the officers while insulting and demeaning the petitioner no. 1, asked her to use her influence to get the articles removed or to face the brunt of state's political executives," it had claimed.
The plea had claimed that deleting any content from the internet has a nationwide effect and any decision to delete any content has to be left to be taken by the Centre and not by state governments. It had also sought a direction to exclude the role of police in the matter of deletion of content on the internet particularly since there exists a regulatory mechanism for overseeing such content and restricting any mischievous contents.
-With PTI Inputs