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The Supreme Court today granted Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami three weeks' protection from arrest in relation to the FIRs filed against him for the alleged defamation of Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
The Court also issued notice in the plea filed by Goswami seeking a stay on any action that may be taken against him on the basis of the FIRs. Court has directed for proceedings on all FIRs except the primary one filed in Nagpur to be stayed till further orders.
The Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah took up the matter for hearing through video conferencing after Goswami moved the Supreme Court on Thursday seeking an ex parte stay on action against him based on multiple FIRs registered across various states.
The Court today transferred the FIR filed in Nagpur to Mumbai and the investigation on the same will be carried out along with the probe on the complaint filed by Goswami pertaining to the attack made against him. Proceedings on all other FIRs in various States shall remain stayed.
Goswami has been afforded protection from any coercive action for a period of three weeks during which he may take recourse to moving appropriate forum seeking antiicpatory bail or any other legal remedy available to him under the law.
In the meantime, the Court has also granted liberty to the petitioner to amend the plea to add an alternative prayer for consolidation of all complaints and FIRs filed against him across various States.
Representing Arnab Goswami was Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi who was briefed by a team from Phoenix Legal.
Beginning his submissions, Rohatgi took the Court through the details of the recent Palghar lynching incident. It was during a live debate on the Palghar incident that Goswami made the alleged defamatory statements against Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
Rohatgi argued that Goswami deals with questions of public interest and that the anchor questioned the inaction of police in light of the Palghar incident. He clarified that there was "no religious angle" given by Goswami during the programme.
The Senior Advocate submitted that Goswami asked some questions pertaining to the silence of the Congress President on the killing of the Sadhus in Palghar and had added that if persons from the minority community were killed, Congress would be the first to raise the issue.
It was after this program that aired on April 21 that a number of police complaints were filed against Goswami in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana, and J&K, Rohatgi said to the Court. He pointed out that most of these states where FIRs are lodged are governed by the Congress and were principally against the alleged defamation of Sonia Gandhi.
Rohatgi went on to read certain tweets put out by some Congress leaders and workers. He pointed out that most of the complaints are identical and all invoke the same provisions of the law, i.e., Sections 153, 153A, 500, 504, 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
He added that a case of defamation can be filed only by the person aggrieved and not by someone else
The former Attorney General then narrated the incident where Goswami and his wife came under attack in the wee hours of April 22, saying that it was a "murderous attack" and an attack on freedom of speech.
He further termed it as an assault on Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, and said that the idea behind the filing of multiple FIRs is to muzzle the freedom of the press. He went on to cite precedents to show that there can be no FIR in a case of defamation, nor can there be multiple FIRs with same cause of action.
Concluding his arguments, Rohatgi said that his client should be protected with respect to these FIRs as well as any other complaints that may be filed related to the program of April 21.
Appearing for the State of Maharashtra, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal read out the alleged defamatory statements made by Goswami on air on April 21. He argued that if Goswami's statements fall within the purview of free speech, there cannot be Article 32 petitions on "fake free speech".
He further stated that Goswami has tried to ignite communal tension by pitting Hindus against the minorities
Sibal submitted that it is a settled position that once an FIR is lodged, and if on its reading, an offence is made out, then it cannot be quashed. If someone has filed a complaint, police will investigate and find out if the person can be prosecuted, Sibal argued.
He asked that when there are offences made out in these FIRs, how can there be an Article 32 plea for quashing of the FIRs.
"The cases may be clubbed, but not quashed", he stated.
He went on to ask what the problem was if Congress workers/leaders have filed the FIRs. He asked the Court,
"Even BJP workers file FIRs and Rahul Gandhi appears in defamation cases filed against him, why can't Goswami appear?"
At this point, Justice Chandrachud suggested that there may be a ground for invoking Article 32 here, given that multiple FIRs have been filed on same cause of action.
Sibal replied that the complaints may all be clubbed, but cannot be for granting protection. “What if the Police decides to add S.124A later?”, he asked.
Advocate Manish Singhvi then began his submissions for the State of Rajasthan. He said that Section 153A & 153B are non-bailable offences and that there is a clear prima facie case against Goswami under these provisions
He argued that the context in which the alleged defamatory statements were made has religious connotations, and that a prima facie case is made out. He reiterated Sibal’s submission, saying,
“There can be consolidation of cases, but investigation cannot be stopped.”
Appearing for the State of Chhattisgarh, Senior Advocate Vivek Tankha argued that this is a case of misusing the channel's broadcasting licence.
He said that that Goswami is promoting "communal disharmony" and has vitiated the atmosphere during the COVID-19 lockdown period by hurting religious sentiments.
He added that Goswami is seeking protection from this Court after inciting people, and instigating enmity between rival groups. Tankha prayed that no protection be given to Goswami, "otherwise we would be inching towards another division of the country".
Tankha further submitted that if protection is granted now, it may be seen as an encouragement to say more of such inciting things. People like Goswami should be stopped from saying such things to protect the integrity of the country, Tankha concluded.
Making his rejoinder submissions, Rohatgi countered Tankha by saying that millions of people have not been affected by Goswami's program, but it is only Congress workers who have filed cases.
On Singhvi's point on religious nature of the statement, Rohatgi said that Goswami only spoke about the lynching of Sadhus, and had said that he would take Congress's silence on the issue as complicity.
He added that there was no incitement on religious lines, and that Goswami never spoke of Hindus or Muslims, but only of killing of Sadhus.
After hearing the arguments, the Court expressed its inclination to allow the petitioner to amend the prayer to include a prayer for consolidation of the FIRs and to bring the complaints and FIRs on record.
It also expressed its inclination to stay proceedings on all FIRs except one, given that the cause of action is the same.
The Court further observed that it intends to grant protection to the petitioner for a period of two weeks, so that he may move the appropriate forum for anticipatory bail. It said that Goswami cannot be subjected to proceedings in different parts of the country.
After taking instructions from Goswami, Rohatgi asked the Court that the FIR in Nagpur may be transferred to Mumbai and the same should be investigated along with the FIR filed by Goswami against the "murderous attack" on him.
The Court ultimately granted three weeks' protection to Goswami, and issued notice in the plea filed by the Republic TV head.
No coercive action is to be taken against Goswami for this period, during which he may move the appropriate forum for anticipatory bail or other measures.
Any other FIRs filed in relation to the issue shall also be stayed until further orders, the Court said. The matter will be taken up after eight weeks.
Goswami approached the Apex Court a day after at least 16 complaints were filed against him for allegedly defaming Congress President Sonia Gandhi during one of his live debate programs. These complaints and FIRs were lodged in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh.
Claiming it to be a witch-hunt, the founder of Republic TV claims that the action against him by way of filing multiple complaints is an "orchestrated" and "malicious" campaign against him by a political party. It is his case that these complaints and FIRs are "politically motivated", given that they have been filed only in states ruled by a Congress government.
It is also averred that the complaints are a way to "muzzle" Goswami's free speech and are an attack on the Freedom of the Press, in addition to being violative of Goswami's rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21.
It is also added in the petition that in the intervening night between April 22 and 23, Goswami along with his wife were "brutally attacked" by youth wing leaders of the Congress. Goswami adds that this is a part of the orchestrated attack on his free speech.
Therefore, Goswami moved the Apex Court seeking quashing of the FIRs filed against him and for a direction for cognizance not to be taken against him on the same. He has also sought adequate protection to be afforded to him and his colleagues.
The petition has been filed by AoR Pragya Baghel.
Arnab Goswami Team of lawyers: Senior Advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Siddharth Bhatnagar along with Advocates Saket Shukla, Mrinal Ojha, Malvika Trivedi, Vasanth Rajasekaran, Debarshi Dutta, Ninad Laud, Rajat Pradhan, Harshul Singh, and AOR Pragya Baghel.