In a relief to TV news anchor Amish Devgan, the Supreme Court on Friday (June 26) protected him from any coercive action in pending and future FIRs which may be lodged over his alleged defamatory comment against Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in a show telecast on June 15.
Presently, five FIRs have been lodged against Devgan in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Telangana for using the term Lootera Chisti (robber) for the Sufi saint in the news debate show called Aar Paar on his channel.
However, he later tweeted an apology saying that he was actually referring to Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji and inadvertently ended up naming Chisti.
A bench comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari took note of the submissions of senior lawyer Siddharth Luthra and advocate Mrinal Bharti and also stayed the pending or future probes in the case against the journalist by police agencies till July 8, the next date of hearing.
As regards the interim relief, till the next date of hearing, we deem it appropriate to pass ad-interim relief in terms of prayer clause (A) and (B) (which seek stay of investigation in pending and future FIRs and the protection from possible coercive action), the top court said in the order.
Issuing notices to Maharashtra, Telangana and Rajasthan, the bench asked the lawyers for the journalist to make the complainants, who have lodged FIRs, as parties to his petition and sought their responses as well by July 8.
The top court also granted liberty to one of the complainants, represented through lawyer Rizwan Merchant, to file the link of original broadcast within one week from today.
Two FIRs for the alleged offence have been registered at Ajmer and Kota in Rajasthan and one has been lodged at Bahadurpura in Hyderabad, the plea said, adding that two such FIRs have been lodged at Nanded and Pydhonie in Maharashtra.
During the brief hearing via video-conferencing, Luthra said the journalist has already issued a clarification through a tweet and moreover, errors cannot be construed as criminal offences.
The petition, filed through lawyer Mrinal Bharti, said that the plea concerned the life and liberty of the journalist.
In a well-orchestrated manner – the Petitioner has been made a victim of country wide filing of false and baseless Criminal Complaint and FIRs on one hand and on the other hand Petitioner, his family and his crew has been abused unabashedly on the social media and by personal messages by unknown persons. The Petitioner has also received several death threats from various anti-social elements, the plea said.
It said that Devgan was holding a discussion on a petition filed before the top court on his show on June 15 on the issue of the Places of Worship Special Provisions Act.
During the course of the live heated discussion one of the panelists quoted Chisti (Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti) and inadvertently, Petitioner (Devgan) who wanted to refer to the historical figure Khilji (Alauddin Khilji) as a marauder, mentioned the name Chisti, the plea said.
That immediately on realizing his inadvertent slip of tongue during heated debate in his news debate show Petitioner tendered a clarification and clarified that the name Chisti was mentioned by error and inadvertently, it said.
Devgan tweeted the clarification on his personal twitter account on the intervening night of June 16-17 and moreover, the channel carried video clarification featuring the journalist, the plea said.
One of the FIRs was lodged at Pydhonie police station in Mumbai against Devgan for allegedly hurting religious sentiments by referring to saint Chisti in derogatory terms in the TV programme on the complaint of Arif Razvi, general secretary of Raza Academy.
In another case, the apex court stayed stayed further proceedings in three FIRs lodged in West Bengal against some persons, including editors of a news web portal, regarding articles published by them.
SC stays proceedings against scribes in West Bengal
The top court also issued notices to the West Bengal government and the Centre seeking their replies on a plea filed by Nupur J Sharma, the editor of English language Opindia.com, and others including its founder and CEO.
“Issue notice. Further proceedings in pursuance to the FIRs are stayed,” a bench comprising Justices S K Kaul and B R Gavai said in its order.
The bench was hearing a petition filed by Sharma and others including the founder and CEO of news portal and editor of its Hindi language publications who have claimed that the West Bengal government and its “authoritarian Kolkata Police” is misusing FIRs and “brute police-powers” to intimidate journalists.
The petitioners were represented in the apex court by senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani and lawyer Sandeep Kapur.
“The petitioners are constrained to invoke the extra-ordinary writ jurisdiction of this court under Article 32 of the Constitution against the patently extortionist and mala fide actions of the Government of West Bengal to impose illegal censorship in the state by threatening, scuttling, and gagging honest media houses through misuse of state police,” the plea claimed.
The petitioners claimed they were informed that cause of one of the FIRs lodged by police was an article published by the news web portal on the issue of alleged hiding of data related to COVID-19.
The plea claimed that one of the FIRs lodged pertained to news report published by the web portal in October last year. It alleged that to undermine the freedom of press, the state has rather chosen to “hound down” the petitioners by registering multiple FIRs in order to “bargain for deletion of news articles by putting the petitioners life and liberty at bait”.
It claimed the state and the police are not only intimidating the journalists, but also threatening their family members to seek deletion of media reports which bring to the public notice “the actual state of affairs in the state of West Bengal during these difficult times”.
The plea alleged that while the authorities are using FIRs to “scuttle free speech” and issuing notices to the petitioners, the police has despite repeated requests refused to share the copy of these FIRs or to upload the same on their official website.
“What is glaring is the manner in which the powers under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the investigative powers of the police, are being blatantly misused by the state of West Bengal (Respondent No. 1) to scuttle and silence bonafide but critical instances of journalism, capable of causing inconvenience to its political executives, in total disregard to the constitutional guarantees contained in Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution,” it said.
It alleged that the police had intimidated some of the petitioners to get the news articles deleted.
“Accordingly, the officers while insulting and demeaning the petitioner no. 1, asked her to use her influence to get the articles removed or to face the brunt of states political executives,” it claimed.
The plea claimed that deleting any content from the internet has a nationwide effect and any decision to delete any content has to be left to be taken by the Centre and not by state governments.
It has also sought a direction to exclude the role of police in the matter of deletion of content on the internet particularly since there exists regulatory mechanism for overseeing such content and restricting any mischievous contents.
(With inputs from agencies)