The Supreme Court on Monday, while extending the interim protection from arrest granted to four journalists, refused to quash the FIRs registered against them by the State Police in connection with a fact-finding report published by them over ethnic violence in Manipur.
The Bench of Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice J.B. Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra observed that it would not quash the FIRs, since the court would have to read everything for the same, but would rather transfer the trial to either the High Court of Manipur or Delhi.
The Apex Court passed the orders, while hearing a writ petition jointly filed by journalists Seema Guha, Sanjay Kapoor, Bharat Bhushan and the President of the Editors Guild of India (EGI).
Representing the petitioners, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal asserted that the EGI did not volunteer by itself to go to Manipur and make the report, but was invited by the Army.
He showed a letter sent by the Army to the Editors Guild and said that the Army invited the EGI to see what was happening in Manipur – the ‘unethical, ex-parte reporting’ by the vernacular media.
On a query by the Apex Court why the Editors Guild was asked to come to Manipur, Sibal responded that the Army wanted an objective assessment of what was happening at the ground.
He added that once the EGI had given its report, it could not be prosecuted for offences under the penal code for the same.
Appearing for the Manipur government, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta contended that he would not argue on the merits of the case and instead asserted that the matter could be heard by the Manipur High Court, since the High Court was fully functional now.
Sibal objected to the proposal on the grounds of security, mentioning the case of a lawyer, who was recently attacked in Manipur for representing a Kuki professor.
He insisted on transfer of the trial in the Delhi High Court on the grounds that after the attack on the Advocate, other lawyers were withdrawing from the cases. He further mentioned another lawyer whose house was burnt. Sibal asserted that it was hazardous to go to Manipur at this point in time.
The SG then suggested that the petitioners could even appear virtually before the Manipur High Court.
However, Sibal reiterated his earlier submission and referred to the statements made by the Chief Minister of Manipur against the EGI. He said the petitioners cannot be prosecuted on this basis. This (fact-finding committee) report was filed on September 2, an FIR was registered on the night of September 3 and on the next day, the Chief Minister made a statement.
Objecting to the submissions, the SG alleged that Sibal was trying to make it a ‘political’ issue at the national level.
However, Sibal remained unfazed and said that the petitioners did not want a situation where they had to start engaging lawyers as the lawyers in the state had withdrawn, adding that houses of some Advocates were even vandalised.
SG Mehta submitted that he did not want this to become a national political issue, which possibly seemed to be the intention.
However, the Apex Court observed that it was a report after all. It said the petitioners were basically arguing on this that they have done a report. This was a matter of their subjective opinion. It said this was not one of the cases where somebody was there on the ground and committed some offence.
The Bench directed the SG to make a larger statement, submitting that without any concession or any other future case, there was no objection. The top court of the country then listed the matter for further hearing on September 15.
(Case title: Seema Guha and Ors vs The State of Manipur and Anr)