Journalists of the news website The Wire were granted two months of interim protection from any coercive action by the Supreme Court on Wednesday. The portal, and three of its journalists had been named in three separate First Information Reports (FIR) in districts Rampur, Barabanki and Ghaziabad. According to media reports, the three-judge bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai and BV Nagarathna however, added that while the court “does not want freedom of press to be muzzled or stifled” it cannot create a separate avenue for journalists to approach it directly for quashing of FIRs lodged against them. The SC has directed the petitioner to now approach the High Court and seek the quashing of the FIRs against them.
The Court said that while free speech and press freedom are crucial, alternative remedies before the High Court should be exhausted first, reported Bar and Bench quoting the SC Bench’s remarks: “We don’t want press to be stifled. But we cannot create separate avenue for journalists to come to this court directly under Article 32 for quashing FIRs.”
The digital news portal, and Wire and its three journalists are facing charges under section 153 (Wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 153B (Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration), and 505 (Statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), reported The Leaflet. Reporters, Seraj Ali and Mukul Singh Chauhan, were booked by UP’s Barabanki police for a video news story on the demolition of a mosque in May 2021 by the UP police, stated the news reports.
On May 17, following the orders of the SDM’s court, the Ram Sanehi Ghat mosque was demolished. The Guardian, had first reported that the destruction of the mosque violated a High Court order ruling to protect it till May 31. The breaking news was followed up extensively by many media outfits. The Wire’s video report showed statements by locals and devotees who described the demolition. After the case was registered, The Leaflet reports that the Investigating Officer (IO) had summoned The Wire’s Editor Siddharth Varadarajan, and journalists Ali and Chauha to Barabanki, from New Delhi. The IO threatened to procure non-bailable warrants against them if they failed to appear, stated the report. Meanwhile, Ismat Ara, also a journalist from The Wire, had been booked by the Rampur police for her report on the death of a farmer allegedly by a police bullet during the farmers’ protest in Delhi on Republic Day, January 26, 2021. She had conducted an interview with a family member of the deceased who had during the said interview expressed apprehensions of foul play in the young farmer’s death.
The Wire had also been named in an FIR filed by the Ghaziabad police for showing miscreants forcibly cutting off the beard of an old Muslim man, and quoting the victim himself as saying he was made to chant some slogans. The police had later denied any communal angle to the incident.
The Foundation for Independent Journalism (FIJ), the non-profit company which runs The Wire, had moved a writ petition along with three of its reporters, seeking quashing of the FIRs on the grounds that none of the offences listed in the FIRs was even made out, stated a report on the portal itself. Senior advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, submitted that the police was attempting to violate constitutionally guaranteed press freedoms by filing criminal charges over factual news reports that the authorities did not like. The plea stated, “By the very lodging of such FIRs, media persons become embroiled in a process of seeking anticipatory bail, dealing with summons to attend police stations far away from their place of work, dealing with the threat of non-bailable warrants etc. – all for writing on, reporting, and commenting on current affairs. The process becomes the punishment.”
According to The Wire, the court granted two months interim protection to them, to approach the Allahabad high court for relief. Justice Rao noted that in the case of Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim, he had agreed to quash the FIR against her after the Meghalaya high court had refused to do so. “You can file an application before the high court and we can grant you some interim protection,” Justice Rao told Ramakrishnan. “Because what will happen is, this will open a Pandora’s box. We cannot take up all the cases here”.
Incidentally, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked India at 142nd position out of 180 countries in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index. The Wire’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan, has been regularly named in complaints and FIRs have been lodged against him in Uttar Pradesh. In February this year, a complaint against him had been lodged at Rampur’s Civil Lines police station for his social media post. The FIR was based on a complaint filed by one Sanju Turaiha, a resident of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh. Varadarajan was charged under Sections 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity between classes) of the IPC. It was alleged that Varadarajan’s social media post allegedly “misled people” on the death of Navreet Singh Dibdibiya, a protester in New Delhi on Republic Day when violence broke out during the protest against farm bills.
Journalists have been easy targets for complaints and FIRs being lodged against them for various reasons, most commonly, just for doing their jobs as reporters and editors.