The Supreme Court of India (SC) immediately acted upon all the FIRs lodged against Editor-In-Chief at Republic TV Arnab Goswami in connection to the alleged defamation of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. The SC on Friday put a stay on all the FIRs lodged against Goswami a day before, except the one registered by Maharashtra Cabinet Minister for Energy Dr Nitin Raut at Nagpur’s Sadar Police Station. SC on Friday transferred the FIR lodged in Nagpur to Mumbai where it will be further investigated. SC also said no coercive action should be taken against Goswami for the next three weeks; so he has time to apply for anticipatory bail….
Arnab Goswami’s lawyer Mukul Rohatgi’s defence
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi who defended Goswami said the complaints and FIRs came across as ‘politically motivated’ given that they had been filed only in Congress-run state governments. It is also said that the complaints were a way to ‘muzzle’ Goswami’s Freedom of Speech and was an attack on the Freedom of the Press in addition to violation of Goswami’s rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 21. In particular, complaints have been filed at the behest of a political party to muzzle the fundamental right to free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India, 1950 and to infringe upon his right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
It is also added in the petition that in the night intervening between April 22 and 23, Goswami along with is wife were ‘brutally attacked’ by alleged youth wing leaders of Congress. Goswami added that this is a part of the orchestrated attack on his free speech. Therefore, Goswami moved the Apex Court seeking quashing of the FIRs filed against him and for a direction for cognizance not to be taken against him on the same. Despite being granted a Y security, the Editor-in-Chief of Republic has also sought for adequate protection to be provided to him and his colleagues.
Beginning his submissions, Rohatgi took the Court through the details of the recent Palghar lynching incident. It was during a live debate on the Palghar incident that Goswami made the alleged defamatory statements against Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Rohatgi argued that Goswami deals with questions of public interest and that the anchor questioned the inaction of police in light of the Palghar incident.
He clarified that there was ‘no religious angle’ given by Goswami during the programme. The senior advocate submitted that Goswami had asked some questions pertaining to the silence of the Congress President on killing of the Sadhus in Palghar and had added that if persons from the minority community were killed, Congress would be the first to raise the issue. It was after this program that aired on April 21 that a number of police complaints were filed against Goswami in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana, and J&K, Rohatgi said to the Court. He pointed out that the Congress governed most of these states where FIRs were lodged and were principally against the alleged defamation of Sonia Gandhi.
Rohatgi went on to read certain tweets put out by some Congress leaders and workers. He pointed out that most of the complaints are identical and all invoke same provisions of the law, i.e., Sections 153, 153A, 500, 504, 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Rohatgi argued that a case of defamation could be filed only by the person aggrieved and not by someone else. Rohatgi narrated the incident where Goswami and his wife came under attack in the wee hours of April 22, saying that it was a ‘murderous attack’ and an attack on Freedom of Speech.
Rohatgi further termed it as an assault on Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, and said that the idea behind multiple FIRs is to muzzle the Freedom of the Press. He went on to cite precedents to show that there can be no FIR in a case of defamation, nor can there be multiple FIRs with same cause of action. Concluding his arguments, Rohatgi said that his client should be protected with respect to these FIRs as well as any other complaints that may be filed related to the program of April 21.
Senior Congress leader and senior advocate Kapil Sibal in Maharashtra read out the alleged defamatory statements made by Goswami on air on April 21. Sibal stated that Goswami had tried to ignite communal tension by pitting Hindus against the minorities and said that once an FIR is lodged, and if on its reading and an offence is made out, then it cannot be quashed.
If someone has filed a complaint, police will investigate and find out if the person can be prosecuted, Sibal argued. He asked that when there are offences mentioned in these FIRs how can there be an Article 32 plea for quashing of the FIRs. “The cases may be clubbed, but not quashed,” he stated. He further went on to ask what was the problem with Congress leaders filing FIRs. He asked the Court, “Even BJP workers had filed FIRs and Rahul Gandhi appeared in defamation cases that were filed against him, then why couldn’t Goswami appear?” At this point, Justice Chandrachud suggested that there might be a ground for invoking Article 32 here, given that multiple FIRs have been filed on same cause of action. Sibal replied that the complaints may all be clubbed, but cannot be used for granting protection. “What if the police decides to add Section 124 A later?” he asked.
Advocate Manish Singhvi then began his submissions for Rajasthan. He said that Section 153A and 153B are non-bailable offences and that there is a clear prima facie case against Goswami under these provisions. He argued that the context, in which the alleged defamatory statements were made, has religious connotations, and a prima facie case is made out. He reiterated Sibal’s submission saying, “There can be consolidation of cases, but investigation cannot be stopped.”
Appearing for the Chhattisgarh, Senior Advocate Vivek Tankha argued that this is a case of misusing broadcasting license. He said that that Goswami was promoting ‘communal disharmony’ and had vitiated the atmosphere during COVID-19 lockdown period by hurting religious sentiments of people. He added that Goswami was seeking protection from this Court after inciting people and instigating enmity. Tankha appealed that no protection be given to Goswami, ‘otherwise we would be inching towards another division of the country.’
Tankha further submitted that if protection is granted to Goswami, it might be seen as an encouragement for others. “People like Goswami should be stopped from saying such things to protect the integrity of the country,” Tankha concluded. Making his rejoinder submissions, Rohatgi countered Tankha by saying that millions of people have not been affected by Goswami’s program, but it is only Congress workers who have filed cases.
On Singhvi’s point on religious nature of the statement, Rohatgi said that Goswami only spoke about the lynching of Sadhus, that too in police presence, and had said that he would take Congress’ silence as complicity. He added that there was no incitement on religious lines, and that Goswami never spoke of Hindus or Muslims, but only of killing of Sadhus.
Supreme Court’s action
After hearing the arguments, the Court expressed its inclination to allow the petitioner to amend the prayer to include prayer for consolidation of FIRs and to bring the complaints and FIRs on record. It also expressed its inclination to stay proceedings on all FIRs except one, given that the cause of action is the same.
The Court further observed that it intended to grant protection to the petitioner for a period of two weeks, so that he might move the appropriate forum for anticipatory bail. It said that Goswami couldn’t be subjected to proceedings in different parts of the country. After taking instructions from Goswami, Rohatgi asked the Court that the FIR in Nagpur may be transferred to Mumbai and the same should be investigated along with the FIR filed by Goswami against the ‘murderous attack’ on him.