The Supreme Court on Tuesday, 19 May will decide on whether the investigation of the two FIRs against Republic TV Editor in Chief Arnab Goswami for spreading communal hatred should be transferred to the CBI.
The judgment by Justice DY Chandrachud will be pronounced at 11:30 am.
The Supreme Court on 11 May had extended the interim protection granted to Goswami, till it makes a decision on his pleas to transfer the investigation of the FIRs filed against him regarding his shows on the Palghar lynching and Bandra migrant gatherings to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah had reserved its orders, noting that it also takes into account the Maharashtra government’s application filed in the apex court requesting directions to stop Goswami’s alleged attempts to influence the investigation of the cases.
The hearing, conducted via video conferencing, saw senior advocate Harish Salve, representing Goswami, allege that this was a case of “one political party targeting a journalist.” He also noted with alarm that one of the police officers who had interrogated Goswami had now tested positive for COVID-19, questioning the bona fides of the investigation process.
‘Can Have a Chilling Effect on Freedom of the Press’: Harish Salve
Salve argued that the nature of the FIRs regarding Goswami’s show about the Palghar lynching – where he had made allegations against Congress President Sonia Gandhi – showed that it was an “arm-twisting tactic”, and that the 12-hour long interrogation conducted by the police was unnecessary. Initially in the hearing, he was requesting the court to quash the FIRs against Goswami, or at least issue anticipatory bail to him.
The judges, however, suggested that these requests could be put to the Bombay High Court rather than the Supreme Court, during which time the interim protection granted by the apex court to Goswami on 24 April would continue. Justice Chandrachud stated that they had to ensure that a citizen was not being subjected to harassment, but could not allow one person, in particular, to be exempted from the normal judicial process.
It was at this stage that Salve then suggested that the investigation should be transferred to the CBI.
He noted that Goswami had “made serious allegations against the local police” in his programmes (a point which had been raised in the Maharashtra government’s application to the court), and so said he would not have a problem if the cases were transferred to the CBI for investigation.
This led to a sharp exchange between senior advocate Kapil Sibal, representing the State of Maharasthra, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, and Salve. Sibal contested the transfer of the case to the CBI, alleging this meant the investigation would be in Goswami’s hands as a result. The Solicitor General objected to this statement, and Salve said this showed Goswami had been “caught in the crossfire” between the Centre and the state.
Salve continued to raise questions about the investigation of the case, noting that Goswami was asked details of his editorial team and content, whether he had defamed Sonia Gandhi, whose money was invested in the channel, how the channel gathered its news and decided its guests for programmes. He also claimed that the CEO of Republic TV was questioned for over six hours.
“There has to be a balance between Article 19(1)(a) and sanctity of the criminal investigation,” Salve argued, according to LiveLaw. “Either hear our matter on merits or transfer the matter to CBI. There could be a chilling effect on the freedom of press.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that this was a “peculiar case”, where the accused had no faith in the police, and the police had also come to the court to “insulate” its investigation. He said he found the idea of a citizen being investigated for 12 hours “disturbing”, and concluded that the best solution would be to transfer the case to an independent agency if the judges found that a prima facie offence was made out.
Arnab Indulging in ‘Pure Communal Violence’: Kapil Sibal
Sibal defended the way the probe was being carried out by the Mumbai Police, arguing that Goswami was not harassed in any way, that he had been asked a set of consolidated questions when interrogated by the police, and had not been allowed to use his phone or work during that time like any other accused person.
He accused Goswami of communal hate-mongering and said that he stigmatised people by way of sensationalising things. “He is indulging in pure communal violence,” he added, according to LiveLaw. Senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi and KV VIshwanathan (the latter representing Irgan Abu Bakhar Sheikh, who’d filed the complaint against Goswami for his Bandra show), supported Sibal’s arguments.
In his rebuttal, Salve alleged that the investigation was problematic because it was taking parts of his show and applying them out of context to make a case against him. He also raised the issue of how the FIRs against Goswami regarding his Palghar lynching show, which had been filed by Congress workers in several states, were copied.
When the judges asked Sibal about this, he said this could well be the case as the workers would have placed on record details from the first FIR – but given that Goswami had alleged the Congress party to be behind communal disharmony, there was nothing wrong with this. He said it should be left to the court to decide whether to quash the FIRs if necessary.
The judges then decided to reserve their order on transferring the investigation to the CBI, and said they would announce their decision later this week. In the meanwhile, Goswami’s interim protection from arrest, which is set to expire on 14 May, is to continue till further orders.
(With inputs from LiveLaw and Bar & Bench.)