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SC Extends Arrest Protection Till Friday for Editors Guild Members Amid Manipur Report Row

‘This is not a case of somebody on the ground having committed an offence… They have published a report,’ says SC.
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Image credit: PTI

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday extended protection from arrest granted to four Editors Guild of India (EGI) members till Septmeber 15, In the hearing the EGI  informed the Supreme Court  that they had visited Manipur at the invitation of the Army to conduct an "objective assessment" of alleged "unethical and ex parte reporting" by the vernacular media. 

The EGI said they did not volunteer for this mission, but rather, the Army requested their presence. Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, representing the EGI, presented this information before a Bench comprising Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra. 

The hearing pertains to two FIRs lodged against the three members of the EGI's fact-finding team and the president of the Guild. 

According to Live Law, during the hearing, Sibal addressed the court's questions about the Army's motive, explaining, "They wanted us to make an objective assessment of what is happening on the ground… We published our report on September 2. On September 3 night, we were prosecuted for offences under the Indian Penal Code. The Chief Minister also makes statements against us… How can we be prosecuted for the publication of a report?"

Chief Justice Chandrachud then drew Solicitor General Tushar Mehta's attention, who represented the Manipur government, to the fact that the entire First Information Report (FIR) against the EGI members was based on their report. He emphasised, "It is a report after all. The basic question he [Sibal] is arguing is they have only done a report that may be a matter of their [EGI’s] subjective opinion… This is not a case of somebody on the ground having committed an offence… They have published a report."

The Chief Justice also decided to examine Sibal's request for the EGI to approach the Delhi High Court rather than the Manipur High Court to seek the quashing of FIRs. The court scheduled the case for a hearing on this matter on September 15.

During the proceedings, Chief Justice Chandrachud asked Mehta if the state would be willing to agree to transfer the case to the Delhi High Court as a one-time measure. He clarified, "We will not quash the FIRs here… but we will examine whether such a plea could be heard by the Delhi High Court."

Initially, Mehta objected to transferring the case to Delhi, claiming that the EGI was attempting to turn it into a "national, political issue." He questioned why the petitioners insisted on Delhi rather than neighbouring states and noted that the Manipur High Court was functioning regularly, allowing virtual hearings.

In response, Sibal argued that going to Manipur would be "hazardous" for his clients, citing recent incidents of vandalism against lawyers who had appeared for Professor Kham Khan Suan Hausing. He urged the court to allow them to prosecute the matter in Delhi.

The FIRs against the EGI members, including Seema Mustafa, Sanjay Kapoor, Seema Guha, and Bharat Bhushan, accuse them of various offences under the Indian Penal Code, such as defamation, defiling places of worship, and criminal conspiracy. These complaints, upon which the FIRs were based, alleged that the EGI report contained "incorrect and false statements."

The EGI maintained that their report resulted from a fact-finding mission conducted between August 7 and 10, during which they travelled extensively and interviewed victims and eyewitnesses. They expressed serious concerns about the right to free speech and personal liberty of journalists, particularly following Manipur Chief Minister Biren Singh's statements in a press conference on September 4, after the release of their report, where he accused the EGI of stoking passions and making provocative statements. 

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