The larger picture

ByRitika Jain

Jun 19, 2020

Vinod Dua asks SC to issue guidelines on filing of FIRs against journalists. He said the case is no longer about him and needs a broader intervention by the top court to protect press freedom

The Supreme Court granted journalist Vinod Dua protection from arrest till July 16 in a sedition case. Speaking to Newslaundry, Dua said he is thankful for the partial relief.

The sedition complaint was filed by state Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ajay Shyam and pertains to Dua’s YouTube show on the lack of preparedness of the lockdown that was aired on March 30, 2020. This is the second FIR filed against Dua this month. However, Dua said the issue is no longer just about him. It pertains to “the larger domain of freedom of speech and expression, and the freedom of media,” he said.

Dua has sought to increase the scope of the current case and asked for the Supreme Court to issue guidelines on the lodging of FIRs against media persons. If the Supreme Court does issue guidelines, it would be similar to the landmark judgement in the 2005 Jacob Mathew vs State of Punjab case, which protects medical practitioners from frivolous litigations. “This will expand the ambit (of the matter) beyond my issue,” Dua said. “Any judgment from the Supreme Court will have a long-lasting impact on this issue. I am hopeful. I believe that I don’t matter as much as the issue now.”

He cited the Emergency of 1975, and how censorship became an official diktat at the time: “But now, there is an unofficial emergency. What worries me more, however, is the loose use of sedition.”

The hearing

In a special hearing held on Sunday, the Supreme Court accorded Dua interim protection from arrest, even as it allowed Himachal Pradesh police to investigate the issue and interrogate him at his residence on a 24-hour notice.

The three-judge Bench, led by Justice UU Lalit, issued a notice and mandated the complainant, Ajay Shyam, to be made party to the proceedings. The top court also sought a status report of the probe in the FIR.

The virtual hearing that began at 11 am was in response to a plea filed by Dua seeking the quashing of the FIR filed against him and protection against coercive action.

“Police officials came to my residence, and I was directed to appear before the Himachal Pradesh police on Saturday morning at 10 am. I am lucky they didn’t arrest me,” senior advocate Vikas Singh said while representing Dua.

“In Himachal Pradesh, a state guest coming from Delhi, a red zone, is required to be institutionally quarantined for 14 days,” Singh said. Referring to the March 30 video report by Dua, Singh said the sedition charge shouldn’t have been applied “for this reporting.” Suggesting that such charges hampered our “vibrant democracy,” Singh said it also deprived one of their fundamental right (of speech).

“Who is the complainant,” Justice Lalit asked at this point. “He appears to be someone from the BJP. Media has reported him as the party’s spokesperson in Himachal Pradesh, but the FIR doesn’t say anything,” replied Singh. “I have the transcript (of the contentious YouTube show) on record. What he (Vinod Dua) said is not sedition. If my lords want, I can also play the video on a screen.” “If this (criticism of the government) is sedition, then 60% of the country will face sedition charges,” Singh added.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre as well as for Himachal Pradesh, pointed out that the complainant must be made party to these proceedings. The Bench agreed and directed the same.

“As per the Supreme Court verdicts, this is not required. But he (Ajay Shyam) can be made party to these proceedings if your lordships want. We would, however, be falling into the trap of giving ( Ajay Shyam) publicity,” argued Singh, objecting to the development.

Thereafter, the Bench, which also comprised Justices MM Shantanagouder and Vineet Saran, issued a notice and directed the Centre and the state to file their replies, and to Dua to file a rejoinder.

Singh, however, urged the Bench to consider staying the FIR. But the court indicated it was not inclined to do so. “If what Dua says is sedition, then only two channels will work in this country. Only Rajat Sharma and Arnab Goswami are saying what the government wants it to say,” he added.

To this, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta immediately raised his objections. “This is an irresponsible argument”, said Mehta.

“It is not,” responded Singh.

Chastising Singh for his statement, Justice Lalit said, “Don’t take names of those who are not party to these proceedings. Withdraw your statement.” Singh complied.

Singh continued urging the Bench to watch the video before passing an order. “See the video first, it will help you decide the matter,” Singh requested. “There is genuine reporting here.”

“Whenever you criticise the government, an FIR will be filed. I will be faced with an FIR every day. First, it was in Delhi (on reporting the Delhi riots). I filed a petition, and it was stayed. Then Shimla (on the lack of preparedness of the lockdown),” said Singh. He argued that people would be harassed on any issues the government does not find palpable. “Fundamental rights for free speech will be suspended,” the senior advocate implored before the judges. “This order sends out a wrong signal. BJP-ruled states will keep filing FIRs,” Singh said.

Singh further alluded that perhaps the BJP leader who filed the complaint is a “puppet” in the hands of the governing party. Mehta and the Bench took umbrage to this observation. “This is unfair,” Mehta said, while the Bench remarked, “never use such adjectives.”

Singh added: “Somebody must be made responsible for filing the FIR.” At this point, the Bench assured Singh that an investigation into the matter had been ordered, and that “puppeteering,” if any, would come forth.

Singh continued urging the judges to reconsider their order, arguing that it would give the impression “as though the offence is made out”. He added that allowing police officials to interrogate Dua at his residence would send out a wrong signal.

At this point, the link for the video conference abruptly disconnected, and the hearing ended.

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