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Journalistic freedom at core of right to free speech says Supreme Court

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Press Trust of India  |  New Delhi 

Journalistic freedom lies at the core of fundamental right to free speech and India's freedom will rest safe as long as journalists can speak to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday.

The top court made these strong comments on the media freedom in its judgment on two petitions filed by Arnab Goswami, the Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV, seeking quashing of criminal investigation into FIRs and private complaints related to the show on the Palghar mob-lynching case.

The top court, in partial relief to him, quashed 14 FIRs or criminal complaints except the initial one that is being probed by the Mumbai police. It granted him protection from coercive actions for further three weeks from today, but declined his plea that probe be transferred to CBI.

Holding that a journalist cannot be subjected to several criminal cases for one incident, a bench comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah dealt with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression of media under the Constitution with that of other citizens' and the CrPC provisions on criminal probe.

The exercise of journalistic freedom lies at the core of speech and expression protected by Article 19(1)(a) (freedom of speech and expression). The petitioner is a media journalist. The airing of views on television shows which he hosts is in the exercise of his fundamental right to speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). India's freedoms will rest safe as long as journalists can speak to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal, the bench said.

The court said however that the exercise of fundamental right of speech and expression is not absolute and the media is answerable to the legal regime enacted with reference to the provisions of reasonable restrictions.

But to allow a journalist to be subjected to multiple complaints and to the pursuit of remedies traversing multiple states and jurisdictions when faced with successive FIRs and complaints bearing the same foundation has a stifling effect on the exercise of that freedom. This will effectively destroy the freedom of the citizen to know of the affairs of governance in the nation and the right of the journalist to ensure an informed society, Justice Chandrachud said in the 56-page judgement.

It said though the freedom of speech and expression of a journalist was not higher than the right of a but we must as a society never forget that one cannot exist without the other. Free citizens cannot exist when the media is chained to adhere to one position.

Quoting from a recent book of Yuval Noah Harari, Justice Chandrachud said: Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

Quashing several FIRs and complaints except the initial one, the judgement said the manner in which Goswami has been subjected to numerous FIRs in several states on the basis of identical allegations would leave no manner of doubt that the intervention of this court was necessary to protect his rights as a citizen and as a journalist to fair treatment guaranteed under Article 14 (right to equality) and the liberty to conduct an independent portrayal of views.

In such a situation to require the petitioner to approach the respective High Courts having jurisdiction for quashing would result into a multiplicity of proceedings and unnecessary harassment to the petitioner, who is a journalist, it said.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Tue, May 19 2020. 18:22 IST
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