Supreme Court extends protection to Editors Guild members, seeks view of Manipur [11.9.2023]

The Supreme Court on Monday extended till September 15 the protection from coercive action it has granted to four members of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) in connection with two FIRs lodged against them, and sought the view of the Manipur government on whether to transfer their plea for quashing the FIRs and other relief to the Delhi High Court for adjudication.

A bench comprising Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and justices P S Narasimha and Manoj Misra observed orally as to how FIRs were lodged on the basis of a report of the fact-finding committee of the EGI when the four were not involved in criminal activities on the ground.

The top court said it was not inclined to quash the FIRs and was mulling whether their plea can be transferred to the Delhi High Court or the Manipur High Court should take it up. The court decided to hear the matter on September 15. The journalists have sought the quashing of the FIRs against them and protection from any coercive action by the Manipur police.

The bench also took note of the submissions of senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Shyam Divan, appearing for the journalists' body, that the EGI members had undertaken the fact-finding study in pursuance of a letter written by the Army on July 12.

It is a report, after all. The basic question is, what they are arguing is that they prepared a report and this is a matter of their subjective opinion...This is not one of the cases where somebody was there on the ground and committed some offence, the bench said.

At the outset, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the state government, said the EGI members may be protected for some more time and the matter be sent to the Manipur High Court as done in other cases.

The counsel for the EGI opposed the submission and said the matter be heard either in the top court or be transferred to the Delhi High Court, contending that FIRs cannot be lodged on the basis of a fact-finding report.

Sibal said the EGI did not volunteer to go to Manipur and went there after the Army wrote to. It was the Army which wanted an objective assessment of the media coverage on the ground, he said.

We did not volunteer to go there. It is the Army which requested us. This is a very serious matter. Please see the letter of the Army to the Editors Guild. This is an invitation by the Army to the Editors Guild saying see what is happening there unethical, ex-parte reporting by the vernacular media. It is at their invitation that we went," Sibal said.

The Editors Guild and its members cannot be prosecuted under the IPC for giving the report, he asserted.

The solicitor general said the Manipur High Court is functional and the EGI and its members can move there and even appear virtually. Moreover, he said, such matters should not be filed in the top court directly.

Sibal referred to alleged incidents of attack on lawyers in Manipur and said, It is hazardous to go there at this point in time."

The senior lawyer even referred to the statements made by the Manipur chief minister about the FIRs in a media briefing.

If you want to make it political at a national level, we can also. Otherwise, the Manipur High Court can deal with it...I just do not want this to be a national political issue which possibly seems to be the intention, the solicitor general said.

The bench said it was not going to quash the FIRs as it will need appreciation of facts at this stage and observed that it will deliberate upon whether the EGI can be asked to move the Manipur High Court or the matter can be transferred to the Delhi High Court.

12 Sep 2023