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While delivering its order on pleas filed by Arnab Goswami, the Supreme Court today reiterated that journalistic freedom is at the core of the freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
The judgment, delivered by a Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah, however, held that this right is not an absolute one, and is subject to the legal regime as under Article 19(2).
Having said that, Court also opined that a journalist should not be subjected to multiple complaints across various jurisdictions. The same, the Court said, would have a stifling effect on the freedom of the press.
"India's freedoms will rest safe as long as journalists can speak to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal. The exercise of that fundamental right is not absolute and is answerable to the legal regime enacted with reference to the provisions of Article 19(2)."
"But to allow a journalist to be subjected to multiple complaints and to the pursuit of remedies traversing multiple states and jurisdictions when faced with successive FIRs and complaints bearing the same foundation has a stifling effect on the exercise of that freedom. This will effectively destroy the freedom of the citizen to know of the affairs of governance in the nation and the right of the journalist to ensure an informed society."
This observation was made in relation to the multiple FIRs and complaints filed against Arnab Goswami across the country after he made statements that allegedly promoted enmity between groups.
A free citizenry and free press cannot survive without each another, the Court highlighted and said that the right of a journalist under Article 19(1)(a) is not higher than the right of a citizen to speak or express. Highlighting the importance of a free and unbiased press, the Court said,
While refusing to transfer the probe in the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Court highlighted that the same can only be done in exceptional circumstances. Deterring accused persons from choosing the manner of investigation, as was attempted in this case, the Court held,
"The displeasure of an accused person about the manner in which the investigation proceeds or an unsubstantiated allegation (as in the present case) of a conflict of interest against the police conducting the investigation must not derail the legitimate course of law and warrant the invocation of the extraordinary power of this Court to transfer an investigation to the CBI."
Goswami, in his petition before the Court, sought quashing of the FIRs registered against him in relation to separate programs he aired on his channel. The FIRs accused him of making hate speech and remarks that would vitiate communal harmony in the country.
In one of the programs, Goswami had admittedly made severe allegations against the Maharashtra Police which was now investigating the FIR against him. Claiming ill-will and malice on the police's part, Goswami had also sought a transfer of the probe to the CBI.
Goswami had sought the probe to be transferred citing the duration of the questioning he was subjected to, the nature of questions asked, tweets posted by various activists in relation to this probe and such.
While rejecting these contentions, the Court said that the investigating agency has the discretion to conduct an investigation in any manner as long as it does not violate any legal provision.
The Court frowned upon Goswami's attempt to discredit the ongoing investigation by taking recourse to social media and utilising the channels he operates.
"The investigating agency has placed on the record what it believes is an attempt by the petitioner to discredit the investigation by taking recourse to the social media and by utilizing the news channels which he operates. Social media has become an overarching presence in society. To accept the tweets by the petitioner and the interview by the complainant as a justification to displace a lawfully constituted investigation agency of its jurisdiction and duty to investigate would have far-reaching consequences for the federal structure. We are disinclined to do so."
The Court consequently affirmed its interim order through which the FIR from Nagpur was transferred to Mumbai in relation to Goswami's broadcast of April 21 which was on the Palghar Mob lynching incident.
The Court quashed all the other FIRs and complaints that were filed on the same cause of action while saying that no new complaints shall be filed on the same.
"The quashing of the FIRs and complaints listed out in (v) above shall not amount to any expression of opinion by this Court on the merits of the FIR which is under investigation by the NM Joshi Marg Police Station in Mumbai."
The Court also rejected the prayer for quashing of the sole surviving FIR and further held that the petitioner may take recourse to available legal remedies under the Criminal Procedure Code if he so wishes.
The investigation would continue to be carried out by the Mumbai Police, the Court said, thereby rejecting the prayer for transfer of the probe to the CBI.
The Court dismissed the second petition that was filed by Goswami seeking quashing of the FIR registered against him in relation to his broadcast on the Bandra migrant incident. This, while granting Goswami the liberty to move the appropriate court for the same.
Additionally, the Court extended the interim protection against coercive action granted to Goswami for three weeks, during which time he may move the appropriate forum for any other relief. The Commissioner of Police of Mumbai has been directed to consider Goswami's request for security and the same is to be provided based on threat perception.