Shielding right to free speech of journalists, the Supreme Court of India said it would be “egregious” to prosecute journalists for false statements in their reports and protected the three Editors Guild of India (EGI) members from arrest in the FIRs lodged against them for a controversial report on media coverage and government handling of ethnic clashes in Manipur.
The court stated that prosecuting journalists for false statements in their reports would be “egregious” and that even if the report was false, journalists cannot be prosecuted under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code.
A Meitei NGO, which had lodged the FIRs against the EGI members, opposed the journalists’ plea for revoking the FIRs alleging that the report was full of falsehoods propagated by the Kuki side which deepened the ethnic divide and fuelled violence.
A bench led by CJI DY Chandrachud said, “It would be egregious to prosecute journalists under Section 153A of IPC (promoting enmity between communities) for false statements in their reports. The report may be right or wrong. But that is what free speech is all about.”
The CJI added, “Your [the NGO’s] entire complaint is a counter narrative of the government. Assuming that the EGI report is false, it is not an offence under Section 153A. A false statement in an article (by a journalist) is not an offence under Section 153A. There are falsehoods in articles published across the country every day, do we prosecute all journalists under Section 153A?”
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta said, “My only worry is that any organisation now can put up a fact-finding committee, file a report and place it alongside the counter views and then come before the SC seeking quashing of the FIR. With this (kind of report), we may not be able to control the narrative building by both sides. Anyone or a team of people can go, put out a particular view and then say it would put counter views alongside the report.”
The CJI said, “The Army wrote to the EGI and complained of biased or one-sided reporting of the ethnic violence. The Army invited them. They went to the ground and submitted a report.”
The bench asked the Meitei NGO’s counsel Guru Krishna Kumar to file its response to the EGI’s plea for quashing of the FIR after EGI counsel Shyam Divan repeatedly said that lodging of FIRs had a chilling effect on free speech of journalists.
It’s noteworthy that in April 2018, the Modi government stated, it will deny government access to journalists who publish fake news, the information ministry had announced. Journalists found guilty of writing or broadcasting fake news will have their government accreditation withdrawn for a limited period or permanently, depending on the frequency of violations, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry said
Journalists and opposition parties described the new rules as an effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to control the press.Critics labelled this an attack on the freedom of the press in the world’s largest democracy.