The Supreme Court on June 3 quashed a sedition case against journalist Vinod Dua in Shimla. The case was filed by a local BJP leader in Himachal Pradesh on May 6, 2020, over Dua’s YouTube show. It invoked charges under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including sedition, public nuisance, printing defamatory materials and public mischief. The complaint alleged that Dua in his show had accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using “deaths and terror attacks” to get votes.
The bench of Justices UU Lalit and Vineet Saran said: “Every journalist is entitled to protection under the Kedar Nath Singh judgment (the famous verdict of 1962 on the scope and ambit of offence of sedition in the IPC).” It said that every prosecution under Sections 124A and 505 of the IPC must be in strict conformity with the scope and ambit of said Sections as explained in, and completely in tune with the law laid down in Kedar Nath Singh.
In the Kedar Nath case in 1962, five judges said that “allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an ‘incitement’ to ‘violence’, or ‘public disorder’”. It had upheld the validity of Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC, and said that sedition charges could not be invoked against a citizen for criticism of government actions as it would be in conformity with the freedom of speech and expression.
However, the Court did not allow the second prayer made by Dua in his petition that no FIR be registered against a person belonging to the media with at least 10 years of experience unless cleared by a Committee. The Court said that “constitution of the committee completely outside the scope of the statutory framework. Any relief granted in terms of the second prayer would certainly, in our view, amounts to encroachment upon the filed reserved for the legislature”.
Regarding the FIR, the Court said: “On facts, it has been established that the statements attributed to the petitioner that the Prime Minister had used deaths and terror attacks to garner votes or that the Prime Minister had garnered votes through acts of terrorism, were not made in the Talk Show. The true translation of the original episode in Hindi, has been placed on record. No such assertions find place in the true translation nor were any objections raised that the translated version was in any way incorrect. The petitioner did say that the air strikes by India on Balakot and attacks on Pathankot and Pulwama were used as political events to garner votes but no allegations were made against the Prime Minister as was stated in the F.I.R.”
The Court said as per the decision of Kedar Nath: “The provisions of the Sections 41 read as a whole, along with the explanations, make it reasonably clear that the sections aim at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.”
It further held: “According to this Court only such activities which would be intended or have a tendency to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence —are rendered penal.”
The Court said that the principles culled out from the decision of the court in Kedar Nath Singh show that a citizen has a right to criticise or comment upon the measures undertaken by the government and its functionaries so long as he does not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder. It further said that it is only when the words or expressions have pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that Sections 124A and 505 of the IPC must step in.
The Court held: “In our view, the statements by the petitioner as mentioned hereinabove, if read in the light of the principles emanating from the decision in Kedar Nath Singh and against the backdrop of the circumstances when they were made, can at best be termed as expression of disapprobation of actions of the Government and its functionaries so that prevailing situation could be addressed quickly and efficiently. They were certainly not made with the intent to incite people or showed tendency to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.”
In support of the second prayer made in the petition, the counsel for Dua submitted that in Jacob Mathew vs State of Punjab and Another, this Court had issued certain guidelines with regard to prosecution of medical professionals accused of rashness or negligence while discharging their professional duties. The decision was not only affirmed by the Constitution Bench of the Court in Lalita Kumari vs Government of Uttar Pradesh and Others, but the Court had gone on to explain that a preliminary inquiry could be insisted upon in certain categories of cases.
The counsel pleaded that the case of journalists as a category be considered on similar lines so that they can, without any hindrance or fear of unwarranted prosecution, fulfil their duties. The protection suggested in the second prayer would afford and ensure protection against such unwarranted prosecutions, he added.
Since the first prayer in the petition seeks quashing of the FIR, reliance was placed on the decision of this Court in Arnab Ranjan Goswami vs. Union of India and Others where relief was granted against multiple FIRs against the television channel and pending at places other than Mumbai. But this Court refused to exercise jurisdiction under Article 32 of the Constitution for the purpose of quashing the basic FIR registered at Mumbai. It was further contented that there were no exceptional grounds or reasons for entertaining the petition under Article 32.
Reliance was also placed on Amish Devgan vs. Union of India and Others, which referred to the decisions of the Court in State of H.P. vs. Pirthi Chand and Another and State of UP vs. OP Sharma as well as Arnab Ranjan Goswami. In Amish Devgan, the Court did not refuse to entertain the petition but proceeded to consider the issues on their merits and finally declined the prayer made by the petitioner for quashing of the FIRs.
Meanwhile, the Editors Guild of India welcomed Vinod Dua’s judgment, saying that it “underlines the importance of protecting journalists from sedition cases”. It said: “While the reference to the earlier judgment of Kedar Nath Singh and the need to protect journalists from sedition charges is welcomed, the manner in which such laws are implemented by law enforcement authorities in different parts of the country, leading to pre-trial incarceration, needs further intervention by the apex court,” the Guild said in a statement. It demanded repeal of these “draconian and antiquated laws that find no space in any modern liberal democracy.”
—By Adarsh Patel and India Legal News Service
Read the related article: Journalists in sedition logs