SC | FIR against Arnab Goswami not to cover offence of defamation (S. 499 IPC); Investigation to continue at NM Joshi Marg Police Station under Mumbai Police

Supreme Court: A Division Bench of Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and M.R. Shah, JJ., while rejecting the Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV Arnab Goswami’s  prayer to transfer the investigation into FIR lodged against him to CBI, issued a series of directions which may be summed up as follows:

  • Prayer to transfer the investigation to CBI is rejected.
  • Protection against coercive action granted to Arnab Goswami to continue for a period of 3 weeks to enable him to pursue remedies available in law.
  • FIR which has now been numbered as 164 of 2020 shall be investigated by the NM Joshi Marg Police Station in Mumbai.
  • Prayer for quashing FIR No. 164 of 2020 under Article 32 rejected.
  • The FIR does not cover the offence of defamation under Section 499 IPC, hence will not form subject matter of the investigation.
  • All FIRs except FIR No. 164 of 2020 at NM Joshi Police Station are quashed.
  • No other FIR or, as the case may be, complaint shall be initiated or pursued in any other forum in respect of the same cause of action emanating from the broadcast on 21 April 2020 by the petitioner on R Bharat.
  • Based on the threat perception, CP (Mumbai) may provide police protection to Arnab Goswami if it is considered appropriate and for the period during which the threat perception continues.
  • Nothing in the present judgment to be considered as an expression on merits of the allegations in the FIRs. 

Background

Following the broadcasts on Republic TV dated 16-4-2020 and on R Bharat dated 21-4-2020, multiple FIR’s and criminal complaints were lodged against the petitioner ? Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV and the Managing Director of ARG Outlier Media Asianet News Private Limited which owns and operates R Bharat.

The broadcasts were in regard to an incident that occurred in Palghar District of Maharashtra wherein 3 persons including 2 sadhus were brutally killed by mob, allegedly in the presence of police and forest guard personnel. In the said broadcasts, petitioner had raised issues with regard to the tardy investigation of the incident.

Petitioner claimed that the Indian National Congress had after the said broadcast launched a “well coordinated, widespread, vindictive and malicious campaign” against him.

The said campaign by the INC was carried out through various news reports, tweets and multiple complaints against the petitioner seeking investigation into offences alleged to have been committed by him under Sections 153, 153-A, 153-B, 295-A, 500, 504, 506 and 120-B of the Penal Code, 1860. Campaign on social media using the hashtag ? #ArrestAntiIndiaArnab was also doing rounds.

To affirm his claim, the petitioner also stated that the FIRs and complaints were lodged in the State where the Governments were formed owing allegiance to the INC. 

Petitioner refused any propagation of communal views being broadcasted by him on the news channel that gave rise to the numerous complaints. Asserting his fundamental right to the Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, the petitioner approached the Court seeking protection.

Another petition was filed which was occasioned by registration of an FIR against the petitioner on 2nd May 2020 wherein it was stated that the petitioner had on 29th April 2020 made certain statements on his broadcast on R Bharat that “people belonging to Muslim religion are responsible for COVID-19 spread.”

Challenging the said FIR, the petitioner sought to invoke the jurisdiction of Court for quashing the said FIR and directing that no cognizance should be taken on any complaint or FIR on the same cause of action.

Submissions

Senior Counsel Harish Salve, on behalf of the petitioner, submitted that the petition raises “wider issues” implicating the freedom of speech and expression of a journalist to air view which fall with the protective ambit of Article 19(1)(a). Further adding to his submission, Mr Salve also stated that this Court should necessarily lay down safeguards which protect the democratic interest in fearless and independent journalism.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted that the investigation be handed over to CBI as the conduct of police in the present case has been disturbing.

Senior Counsel Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, on behalf of the investigating agency of the Maharashtra Police, submitted that: 

  • Facts of the present case clearly demonstrate that in the garb of an arc of protection, the accused is attempting to browbeat the police;
  • Interference in the course of an investigation is impermissible.
  • Though the petitioner is entitled to the fundamental rights under Article 19(1)(a), their exercise is subject to the limitations stipulated in Article 19(2).
  • Transfer of an ongoing investigation to the CBI has been held to be an extraordinary power which must be sparingly exercised in exceptional circumstances

Senior Counsel Kapil Sibal stated that in the exercise of the jurisdiction under Article 32, the Supreme Court may well quash all the other FIRs and allow the investigation into the FIR which has been transferred to the NM Joshi Marg Police Station in Mumbai to proceed in accordance with law.

Analysis

Multiplicity of FIRs

The Bench analysed that the law concerning multiple criminal proceedings on the same cause of action has been analysed in a Supreme Court decision in TT Anthony v. State of Kerala, (2001) 6 SCC 181, and held that there can be no second FIR where the information concerns the same cognisable offence alleged in the first FIR or the same occurrence or incident which gives rise to one or more cognisable offences.

Further analysing the present matter, the Court held that barring situations in which a counter-case is filed, a fresh investigation or a second FIR on the basis of same or connected cognizable offence would constitute an “abuse of the statutory power of investigation”.

The Court on perusal of the various complaints and FIRs observed that they were worded in identical terms and thus in no manner leave a doubt that an identity of cause of action underlies the allegations levelled against the petitioner. Moreover, the language, content and sequencing of paragraphs and their numbering was identical.

Further with regard to numerous proceedings Court went on to say that, subjecting an individual to numerous proceedings arising in different jurisdictions on the basis of the same cause of action cannot be accepted as the least restrictive and effective method of achieving the legitimate state aim in prosecuting crime.

Journalistic Freedom

India’s freedoms will rest safe as long as journalists can speak truth to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal.

The Court stated that “the exercise of journalistic freedom lies at the core of speech and expression protected by Article 19(1)(a).” However, it was also stated that the right of journalists under Article 19(1)(a) is no higher than the right of the citizen to seek and express.

Free citizens cannot exist when the news media is chained to adhere to one position.

Considering all the aspects, in the present case, the Court thought necessary to intervene to protect the rights of the petitioner as a citizen and as a journalist to fair treatment and liberty to conduct an independent portrayal of views.

Transfer of investigation to CBI

It was noted that the precedents of the Supreme Court emphasise that transferring of investigation to CBI is an “extraordinary power” to be used “sparingly” and “in exceptional circumstances”.

Further the Bench opined that one factor that courts may consider is that such transfer is “imperative” to retain “public confidence in the impartial working of the State agencies”.

Reiterating the principle laid down in the decision of Romila Thapar v. Union of India, (2018) 10 SCC 753, the Court opined that accused does not have a say in the matter of appointment of investigating agency. Reliance was placed on a number of Supreme Court’s earlier decisions.

The Court held that so long as the investigation does not violate any provision of law, the investigation agency is vested with the discretion in directing the course of investigation, which includes determining the nature of the questions and the manner of interrogation.

Having analysed all the aspects, the Court issued the directions as mentioned above.[Arnab Ranjan Goswami v. Union of India,  2020 SCC OnLine SC 462 , decided 19-05-2020]

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