The Supreme Court today granted Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami three weeks’ protection from arrest in relation to the FIRs filed against him for the alleged defamation of Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
The Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah took up the matter for hearing through video conferencing after Goswami moved the Supreme Court on Thursday seeking an ex parte stay on action against him based on multiple FIRs registered across various states.
Court has also directed for proceedings on all FIRs except the primary one filed in Nagpur to be stayed till further orders and transferred the FIR filed in Nagpur to Mumbai. Proceedings on all other FIRs in various States shall remain stayed.
Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi from Phoenix Legal had represented Arnab Goswami.
Arnab Goswami has been afforded protection from any coercive action for a period of three weeks during which he may take recourse to moving appropriate forum seeking anticipatory bail or any other legal remedy available to him under the law.
The Court has also granted liberty to the petitioner to amend the plea to add an alternative prayer for consolidation of all complaints and FIRs filed against him across various States.
Rohatgi submitted, it was during a live debate on the Palghar incident that Goswami made the alleged defamatory statements against Congress President Sonia Gandhi. He clarified that Goswami gave “no religious angle” during the programme.
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Goswami had asked some questions pertaining to the silence of the Congress President on the 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.
The program was aired on April 21in which 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 most of these states where FIRs are lodged are governed by the Congress and were principally against the alleged defamation of Sonia Gandhi.
He pointed out that most of the complaints are identical and all invoke the same provisions of the law, i.e., Sections 153, 153A, 500, 504, 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He added that a case of defamation can be filed only by the person aggrieved and not by someone else.
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 Advocate Kapil Sibal representing the State of Maharashtra argued that if Goswami’s statements fall within the purview of free speech, there cannot be Article 32 petitions on “fake free speech”. He further stated that Goswami has tried to ignite communal tension by pitting Hindus against the minorities. He further said that FIRs or complaints cannot be quashed.
“The cases may be clubbed, but not quashed”, he stated. He asked what the problem was if Congress workers/leaders have filed the FIRs. He asked the Court,
“Even BJP workers file FIRs and Rahul Gandhi appears in defamation cases filed against him, why can’t Goswami appear?”
Justice Chandrachud suggested that there may 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 for granting protection. “What if the Police decides to add S.124A later?”.
Advocate Manish Singhvi then began his submissions for the State of Rajasthan. He said that Section 153A & 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 that a prima facie case is made out. He reiterated Sibal’s submission, saying,
“There can be consolidation of cases, but investigation cannot be stopped.”
Senior Advocate Vivek Tankha (on the behalf of the State of Chhattisgarh) argued that this is a case of misusing the channel’s broadcasting licence.
He said that that Goswami is promoting “communal disharmony” and has vitiated the atmosphere during the COVID-19 lockdown period by hurting religious sentiments. He added that Goswami is seeking protection from this Court after inciting people, and instigating enmity between rival groups. Tankha prayed 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 now, it may be seen as an encouragement to say more of such inciting things. People like Goswami should be stopped from saying such things to protect the integrity of the country, Tankha concluded.
After hearing the arguments, the Court expressed its inclination to allow the petitioner to amend the prayer to include a prayer for consolidation of the 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 intends to grant protection to the petitioner for a period of two weeks, so that he may move the appropriate forum for anticipatory bail. It said that Goswami cannot be subjected to proceedings in different parts of the country.
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.
The Court ultimately granted three weeks’ protection to Goswami, and issued notice in the plea. No coercive action shall be taken against Goswami for this period, during which he may move the appropriate forum for anticipatory bail or other measures.
The Plea stated,
…various Complaints have been filed and FIRs registered on politically motivated grounds, precipitated with malice against the Petitioner. In particular, these 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.”
Arnab Goswami Team of lawyers included the following and the petition was filed by AOR Pragya Baghel
Senior Advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Siddharth Bhatnagar along with Advocates Saket Shukla, Mrinal Ojha, Malvika Trivedi, Vasanth Rajasekaran, Debarshi Dutta, Ninad Laud, Rajat Pradhan, Harshul Singh, and AOR Pragya Baghel.