Journalists are entitled to protection in sedition cases under a 1962 verdict so long as they do not incite violence against the government, the Supreme Court held on Thursday while quashing an FIR against Vinod Dua for his alleged comments against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his YouTube show last year.
The veteran scribe had uploaded a video on March 30 last year on 'The Vinod Dua Show on YouTube' allegedly asserting that the Prime Minister used deaths and terror attacks at Pathankot and Pulwama to garner votes.
The FIR lodged at Kumarsain in Shimla by a Himachal Pradesh-based BJP leader had also alleged that Dua had tried to spread false information such as the government did not have enough testing facilities for COVID-19.
The verdict by a bench of justices Uday Umesh Lalit and Vineet Saran said: "We are...of the firm view that the prosecution of the petitioner 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".
The bench analysed and used the 60-year-old Constitution bench verdict in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar and said, 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.
The bench declined senior advocate Vikas Singh's plea on behalf of Dua that like doctors, journalists are also vulnerable and a panel should examine complaints against scribes before lodging of FIRs.
It must however be clarified that every Journalist will be entitled to protection in terms of Kedar Nath Singh, as every prosecution under Sections 124A (sedition) and 505 (public mischief) of the IPC must be in strict conformity with the scope and ambit of said Sections as explained in..."
The principles culled out from the 1962 judgement show that 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 (sedition) and 505 (public mischief) of the IPC3 must step in, said the 117-page judgement.
The top court, however, declined the prayer of Dua that no FIR should be registered against any media personnel with 10 years' experience unless cleared by a committee, saying, any relief granted in terms of second prayer would certainly, in our view, amount to encroachment upon the field reserved for the legislature.
Writing the verdict, Justice Lalit said the statements by Dua, if read in the light of the principles of the 1962 decision and against the backdrop of circumstances when they were made, 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 a tendency to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resorting to violence. The petitioner was within the permissible limits laid down in the decision of this Court in the Kedar Nath Singh, it said.
The bench examined the statements of Dua on lockdown, availability of testing kits for COVID and woes of migrant workers and referred to its own earlier order to say that the journalist did not commit any criminal offence.
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, the bench said while quashing the FIR.
It is common knowledge that countries found themselves wanting in terms of infrastructure and facilities to cope up with the effects of the pandemic, it said, adding that considering the size of the population of this country, the testing facilities, at least in the initial stages, 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 3 ply, those comments in first two statements, cannot be anything other than appraisal of the situation then obtaining, it held.
The top court gave Dua the clean chit on the allegation that he gave incorrect information on movement of migrant workers and incited the general public.
What was prevailing on 30.03.2020 was therefore clear and migrant workers in huge numbers were moving towards their home towns/villages. In the circumstances, there would naturally be some apprehension about the shelter and food to be provided to them en-route...
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.
The FIR against Dua alleged offences of sedition, public nuisance, printing defamatory materials and public mischief was lodged by BJP leader Shyam at Kumarsain police station in Shimla district on May 6 last year and the journalist was asked to join the probe.