New Delhi- The Supreme Court on Monday extended till September 15 the protection from coercive action it has granted to four members of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) in connection with two FIRs lodged against them, and sought the view of the Manipur government on whether to transfer their plea for quashing the FIRs and other relief to the Delhi High Court for adjudication.
A bench comprising Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and justices P S Narasimha and Manoj Misra observed orally as to how FIRs were lodged on the basis of a report of the fact-finding committee of the EGI when the four were not involved in criminal activities on the ground.
The top court said it was not inclined to quash the FIRs and was mulling whether their plea can be transferred to the Delhi High Court or the Manipur High Court should take it up. The court decided to hear the matter on September 15. The journalists have sought the quashing of the FIRs against them and protection from any coercive action by the Manipur police.
The bench also took note of the submissions of senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Shyam Divan, appearing for the journalists’ body, that the EGI members had undertaken the fact-finding study in pursuance of a letter written by the Army on July 12.
“It is a report, after all. The basic question is, what they are arguing is that they prepared a report and this is a matter of their subjective opinion…This is not one of the cases where somebody was there on the ground and committed some offence,” the bench said.
At the outset, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the state government, said the EGI members may be protected for some more time and the matter be sent to the Manipur High Court as done in other cases.
The counsel for the EGI opposed the submission and said the matter be heard either in the top court or be transferred to the Delhi High Court, contending that FIRs cannot be lodged on the basis of a fact-finding report.
Sibal said the EGI did not volunteer to go to Manipur and went there after the Army wrote to. It was the Army which wanted an objective assessment of the media coverage on the ground, he said.
“We did not volunteer to go there. It is the Army which requested us. This is a very serious matter. Please see the letter of the Army to the Editors Guild. This is an invitation by the Army to the Editors Guild saying see what is happening there unethical, ex-parte reporting by the vernacular media. It is at their invitation that we went,” Sibal said.
The Editors Guild and its members cannot be prosecuted under the IPC for giving the report, he asserted.
The solicitor general said the Manipur High Court is functional and the EGI and its members can move there and even appear virtually. Moreover, he said, such matters should not be filed in the top court directly.
Sibal referred to alleged incidents of attack on lawyers in Manipur and said, “It is hazardous to go there at this point in time.”
The senior lawyer even referred to the statements made by the Manipur chief minister about the FIRs in a media briefing.
“If you want to make it political at a national level, we can also. Otherwise, the Manipur High Court can deal with it…I just do not want this to be a national political issue which possibly seems to be the intention,” the solicitor general said.
The bench said it was not going to quash the FIRs as it will need appreciation of facts at this stage and observed that it will deliberate upon whether the EGI can be asked to move the Manipur High Court or the matter can be transferred to the Delhi High Court.
On September 4, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh had said a police case had been filed on the basis of a complaint against the president and three members of the Editors Guild of India, and accused them of trying to “provoke clashes” in the state.
A second FIR was also registered against the four, with the additional charge of defamation.
The initial complaint against the EGI president and its three members was filed by Ngangom Sarat Singh, a retired engineer who had worked for the state government. The second FIR was lodged by Sorokhaibam Thoudam Sangita of Khurai in Imphal East district.
Besides EGI president Seema Mustafa, those who have been booked are senior journalists Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor.
They visited the state between August 7 and 10 to study media reporting on the ethnic violence.
The Editors Guild, in a report published on September 2, slammed the internet ban in the state as being detrimental to media reportage, criticised what it termed as one-sided reporting by some media outlets and claimed there were indications that the state leadership had “turned partisan” during the conflict.
“They are anti-state, anti-national and anti-establishment (people) who came to pour venom. Had I known it before, I would not have allowed them to enter,” the chief minister had said.
The EGI said in its report it received several representations about the media in Manipur playing a partisan role in the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Meitei and Kuki-Chin communities.
“There are clear indications that the leadership of the state became partisan during the conflict. It should have avoided taking sides in the ethnic conflict but it failed to do its duty as a democratic government which should have represented the entire state,” the report said.
In normal circumstances, the EGI said, reports filed by journalists are cross-checked and monitored by their editors or chiefs of bureau with the local administration, police and security forces, but this was not possible during the conflict.
“The internet ban made matters worse. Communication blockade by the government had a deleterious effect on journalism as it directly impacted the ability of journalists to communicate with each other, their editors and their sources. It also impacted the media because local news gathered without any communication links was not sufficient to give a balanced view of the situation,” the report said.
With the internet suspended, and communication and transport in disarray, the media had to rely almost entirely on the narrative of the state government, it said.
The EGI said members of the state leadership labelled sections of the Kuki-Zo tribals as “illegal immigrants” and “foreigners” without any reliable data or evidence.
“This despite the fact that the decadal census from 1901 to 2011 has not shown any unusual growth of the non-Naga (the other minority tribal community) tribal population,” the report said.
The Editors’ Guild members were booked under various sections of the IPC including 153A (promoting enmity between two communities), 200 (using false declaration as true), 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), and under provisions of the Information Technology Act and Press Council Act.
The second FIR, besides these charges, also has Section 499 (defamation) of IPC added to it.
More than 160 people have lost their lives and several hundreds injured since the ethnic clashes broke out in Manipur on May 3, after a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ was organised in the hill districts to protest against the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
Meiteis account for about 53 per cent of Manipur’s population and live mostly in the Imphal Valley. Tribals Nagas and Kukis constitute little over 40 per cent and reside in the hill districts.
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