Supreme Court: Upholding the citizens’ right to criticise the government, the bench of UU Lalit* and Vineet Saran, JJ, has quashed the FIR lodged against Journalist Vinod Dua over his YouTube show on communal riots in Delhi earlier this year.
The Court held,
“… a citizen has a right to criticize or comment upon the measures undertaken by the Government and its functionaries, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder; and that it is only when the words or expressions have pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that Sections 124A and 505 of the IPC must step in.”
What was the controversy?
According to the complaint, Dua had accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using “deaths and terror attacks” to get votes.
The FIR read,
“On 30th March, 2020, Mr. Vinod Dua, in his show namely The Vinod Dua Show on YouTube, has made unfounded and bizarre allegations (details of particular moments are provided below) by stating following facts at 5 minutes and 9 seconds of the video, he has stated that Narendra Modi has used deaths and terror attacks to garner votes. At 5 minutes and 45 seconds of the video, he claims that the government does not have enough testing facilities and has made false statements about the availability of the Personal Protective Kits (PPE) and has stated that there is no sufficient information on those. Further, he also went on to state that ventilators and sanitizer exports were stopped only on 24th March 2020.”
According to the F.I.R. “…by making such false statements, Mr.Vinod Dua spread fear amongst the people. This video will only create a situation of unrest amongst the public which will result in panic and people not obeying the lockdown to come out and hoard essentials which is absolutely unnecessary.…. The rumours were spread with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public, whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity.”
Why no case of sedition was made out against Dua?
Deaths and terror attacks
The statements attributed to Dua that the Prime Minister had used deaths and terror attacks to garner votes or that the Prime Minister had garnered votes through acts of terrorism, were not made in the Talk Show. No such assertions find place in the true translation nor were any objections raised that the translated version was in any way incorrect. The petitioner did say that the air strikes by India on Balakot and attacks on Pathankot and Pulwama were used as political events to garner votes but no allegations were made against the Prime Minister as was stated in the F.I.R.
COVID-19 Testing facilities
Considering the size of the population of this country, the testing facilities to gauge and check the spread and effect of the Pandemic, at least in the initial stages of the surge, were not exactly adequate. If in that light, the petitioner made any comments about testing facilities or PPE Suits, N-95 masks and masks of ply, those comments in first two statements, cannot be anything other than appraisal of the situation then obtaining.
As on 30.03.2020, migrant workers in huge numbers were moving towards their hometowns/villages. In the circumstances, there would naturally be some apprehension about the shelter and food to be provided to them en-route. The former Chief Statistician had expressed a possibility with the intent to invite the attention of the authorities.
If Dua, in his talk show uploaded on 30.03.2020, that is even before the matter was taken up by the Supreme Court, made certain assertions, he would be within his rights to say that as a Journalist he was touching upon issues of great concern so that adequate attention could be bestowed to the prevailing problems.
It cannot be said that the petitioner was spreading any false information or rumours.
“It is not the case of the respondents that the migrant workers started moving towards their hometowns/villages purely as a result of the statements made by the petitioner. Such movement of migrant workers had begun long before.”
In the circumstances, these statements can neither be taken to be an attempt to incite migrant workers to start moving towards their hometowns or villages nor can it be taken to be an incitement for causing any food riots. The situation was definitely alarming around 30.03.2020 and as a journalist if the petitioner showed some concern, could it be said that he committed offences as alleged.
According to the Court, only such activities which would be intended or have a tendency to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence – are rendered penal.
Based on the aforementioned analysis of the statements, the Court said that the said statements,
“can at best be termed as expression of disapprobation of actions of the Government and its functionaries so that prevailing situation could be addressed quickly and efficiently. They were certainly not made with the intent to incite people or showed tendency to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.”
Hence, the prosecution of Dua for the offences punishable under Sections 124A and 505 (1) (b) of the IPC3 would be unjust. Those offences, going by the allegations in the FIR and other attending circumstances, are not made out at all and any prosecution in respect thereof would be violative of the rights of the petitioner guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
[Vinod Dua v. Union of India, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 414, decided on 03.06.2021]
Judgment by: Justice UU Lalit
For Petitioner: Vikas Singh, Senior Advocate
For Respondents: Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, Additional Solicitor General S.V. Raju, Senior Advocates Mahesh Jethamalani and Vinay Navre