The Supreme Court on Monday, while hearing the Maharashtra government's plea against the Bombay High Court order staying a probe into two FIRs against Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, sought an assurance of responsible reporting from Republic TV.
According to Bar&Bench, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said that peace and harmony of society is what matters to the court and there are some grounds where one has to tread cautiously.
As per LiveLaw, the chief justice told Goswami's lawyer Harish Salve: "You can be a little old-fashioned with reporting. Frankly speaking, I cannot stand it. This has never been the level of our public discourse."
"There has to be some responsibility in reporting", Bobde said and sought a sense of assurance from the channel in this regard.
(CJI Bobde opines that the kind of reporting being done does not necessarily have to subscribe to a certain way and it can be done responsibly.)
" Bar & Bench (@barandbench) October 26, 2020
The top court was hearing a special leave petition filed by the Uddhav Thackeray government challenging the Bombay High Court's order. The FIRs pertain to Goswami's allegedly inflammatory comments during his TV programmes about the Palghar lynching and migrants gathering in large numbers in Mumbai's Bandra area during the COVID-19 lockdown.
During the hearing conducted through video-conferencing, Salve, appearing for Goswami, contended that these are not genuine FIRs and one political party has lodged cases in many states.
Senior advocate AM Singhvi, appearing for Maharashtra, said the high court has stayed the FIR and suspended the probe and this should not have been done.
Questioning the high court's 30 June order, Singhvi said that an impression should not be put out that some people are above the law. "How can the state be asked not to investigate a criminal case?" he asked.
While nobody is above the law, the court said, some people are targeted with greater intensity and need more protection. "There is a culture these days that some people need a higher degree of protection," said the bench, also comprising justices DY Chandrachud and LN Rao.
The bench, however, cautioned that no one should be harassed during the course of investigation and sought details from Singhvi as to what the State would not do.
"This is purely an intellectual matter related to verbal matter. It is not related to the recovery of some arms etc. You are entitled to investigate but you cannot harass. It can't be done the way it has been done," the bench stated.
To this, Singhvi replied that there would be no arrest and summons to appear before the police would be issued 48 hours in advance to Goswami.
Salve, while opposing Maharashtra's contention that the investigation should not be stopped, highlighted that Goswami has been interrogated for nearly 17 hours by the police and also drew attention to the FIR against the editorial team of the news channel.
"Some kind of a joke is going on," he said, adding that CEO, CFO and entire editorial staff of the channel have been interrogated.
As per Bar&Bench, the court observed that while freedom of press is crucial, nobody can claim to be immune to being questioned. "We don't support the argument that nobody should question," it said.
When Salve said that a person can file a defamation case but this is not the case for registration of an FIR, the bench said, "We want some kind of assurances from you and there are some grounds where you should tread cautiously".
The court did not pass an order on the Maharashtra government's plea. It directed Goswami and Maharashtra to file their respective affidavits giving details of all the cases and FIRs registered against Goswami, Republic TV and other connected persons.
"I think we should be conciliatory in such cases," the bench observed while posting the matter for hearing after two weeks.
In its 30 June order, the high court had noted that while Goswami's comments targeted the Congress and its president Sonia Gandhi, he did not make any statement that would cause public disharmony or incite violence between different religious groups.
Citing observations made by the Supreme Court that India's freedom will rest safe as long as journalists can speak to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal, the high court had said in its order that free citizens cannot exist when the news media is chained to adhere to any one position.
While admitting for final hearing the petition filed by Goswami seeking to quash the two FIRs, the high court had directed the police not to take any coercive action until the disposal of the plea.
Two FIRs were filed against Goswami " one in Nagpur, which was later transferred to NM Joshi Marg Police Station in Mumbai following directions from the apex court, and another at the Pydhonie police station.
The one filed in Nagpur was related to a news show aired on the channel on 21 April about the Palghar incident where two religious leaders and their driver were lynched.
The Pydhonie case was filed following a show aired by Republic TV on 29 April where Goswami had spoken about migrants gathering near a mosque outside the Bandra railway terminus during the nationwide lockdown.
With inputs from PTI