The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered that no coercive action should be taken against the two lawyers and one journalist who were booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) by the Tripura police for their social media posts about the recent communal violence in the North-eastern state.
A three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Surya Kant passed the order. The apex court also issued notice to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Tripura government on the petition challenging the FIRs registered under the controversial anti-terror law UAPA against the journalist and the lawyers.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the petitioners, submitted before the court that the two lawyers, Ansar Indori (from the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation) and Mukesh (from the Peoples' Union of Civil Liberties) had visited Tripura and published a fact-finding report about the communal violence.
The fact-finding team had demanded appropriate police action against the attackers, those who spread rumours and officials who remained inactive during attacks that occurred in the aftermath of violence against Hindus in Bangladesh during Durga Puja this year. Instead, the Tripura police registered FIR against them and issued notices under Section 41A of the Code of Criminal Procedure against them asking their appearance for interrogation.
The plea by the journalist and lawyers has also sought a court-monitored probe, a declaration that some parts of the UAPA were unconstitutional, and argued that states being allowed to use UAPA to criminalise fact-finding will lead to a "chilling effect" on the freedom of speech, wherein "only facts convenient to the government will come out", the NDTV reported. It also said that journalist Shyam Meera Singh's 'Tripura is burning' tweet, for which he was booked, was "factual reporting".
The FIR had accused Singh and the others of spreading fake news and "distorted or objectionable" content about allegations of mosques being vandalised and Muslim communities being targetted in the state after communal violence took place in neighbouring Bangladesh. The state government had dismissed such allegations.
On November 6, the Tripura police booked 102 social media account holders under the UAPA on charges ranging from criminal conspiracy and forgery to spreading "fake news". Supreme Court lawyers, rights activists and journalists were among those booked based on their social media posts on alleged violence against Muslims and mosques in the state.
The police also served notices to the authorities of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to freeze the said accounts and inform all particulars of those persons to it, PTI reported.
A mosque was vandalised and two shops were set ablaze at Chamtilla during the October 26 Vishva Hindu Parishad rally, which was called to protest against the communal violence in neighbouring Bangladesh. Three houses and a few shops, reportedly owned by Muslims, were also ransacked in nearby Rowa Bazar, the police said, according to the PTI.
The Editors Guild of India has condemned the Tripura Police's action and said the government could not use such stringent laws to suppress reporting on communal violence incidents.
The Tripura government also drew flak from opposition parties due to the registration of cases against the lawyers, activists and the journalist. While the Communist Party of India (Marxist) called it an “act of intolerance,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the the BJP’s favourite cover-up tactic was "shooting the messenger ".