The Delhi High Court on Friday, 19 February, directed the Delhi Police to ensure they complied with their affidavit that there would be no leaks about their investigation into the toolkit case, and ensure that any press briefings were in accordance with the MHA’s 2010 Advisory on Media Policy of Police.
In addition, media houses were directed to ensure that their coverage of the case is based on “verified and authentic sources” even though they don’t have to reveal them. Editors of media channels have been cautioned to ensure they “exercise proper editorial control so that the accused’s rights are not violated.”
The high court passed these interim directions on the petition filed by arrested climate activist Disha Ravi regarding leaks by the Delhi Police and coverage of her case by various media houses.
The petition filed by Ravi argues that leakage of her private WhatsApp chats, as well as alleged admissions and disclosures by her during her time in police custody, and the subsequent biased media reportage about her is:
“false, malicious and severely compromises the Petitioner’s right to privacy, right to reputation, and right to a fair trial.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing on behalf of the Centre on Thursday, had asserted that the police had not leaked any information to the media regarding the case. An affidavit on behalf of the Delhi Police had been filed in the Delhi High Court to this effect.
Justice Singh also directed that people associated with or related to Ravi should not put out any messages in the public which “scandalise or malign” the police during the investigation. Ravi’s lawyers submitted an undertaking that they had not done so till now, and would continue to ensure that this remained the case.
The judge declined to pass any orders directing media houses to take down any of the content impugned in the petition, saying that would require a more detailed hearing.
Justice Singh did note, however, in the order that some of the videos of news channels’ coverage of the case “prima facie appears to be contrary to the stance of the Delhi Police” that there had been no leaks of information to the media.
Even though she noted that the media plays an important role in ensuring responsible journalism, “recent coverage definitely shows that there's prejudicial and sensational journalism that is undertaken by the media.”
The case will be taken up again on 17 March, with parties to file detailed replies within the next two weeks.
‘How is Such Information Disseminating?’
Senior advocate Akhil Sibal, representing Ravi, began by taking the court through the background of the case, including the registration of the FIR.
He then explained how the Delhi Police has been pushing a public narrative against Ravi, noting for instance the tweets by the Delhi Police, which claimed Ravi was part of a conspiracy (without specifying these are allegations at this time).
He also noted how the Twitter thread put out by the Delhi Police after Ravi’s remand hearing on Sunday, 14 February, sought to publicly rebut the arguments made by Ravi at the hearing, that she had only edited a couple of lines in the controversial toolkit.
“We’re having a public response to reports in the media about what happened in court. Through Twitter handles the Delhi Police is making out their case,” Sibal said.
Sibal then pointed to a video by News18, which claimed to have got information about Ravi’s interrogation from the Delhi Police’s cyber cell, and subsequent reportage by News18 and others showing alleged WhatsApp texts between Disha Ravi and Greta Thunberg.
Justice Singh asked if this meant he was contesting the Delhi Police’s claims that they had not leaked anything, to which Sibal replied in the affirmative:
“They have in fact leaked. This is the only logical inference. Their own reporters are saying they have obtained information from the police. How does News18 know about the questions asked during the investigation? How is such information disseminating? India Today have a narrative that she panicked, she tried to delete, she tried to evade, all based on this leaked material.”
Sibal then read from various provisions of the Ministry of Home Affairs Office Memorandum from 2010 titled ‘Advisory on Media Policy of Police’, which includes guidelines on how to report on ongoing investigations.
Noting that the Delhi Police’s briefings have been “speculative, sharing half-baked unconfirmed materials”, Sibal stated that the police are not required to share materials from the case file, as these can instead be done at the time of filing a charge sheet.
Sibal noted that Justice Bakhru of the Delhi High Court had directed that such coverage was impermissible in the Devangana Kalita case.
Sibal then sought to move on to the affidavit on behalf of the Delhi Police. He noted that even if their statement was taken on face value, the affidavit said no information from the case file had been shared with the media, except what was put out in their press briefings. He argued that they had “serious issues with the nature of the information shared through press briefings.”
Justice Pratibha Singh pointed out that the court could not ask the journalists to reveal their sources, so to determine whether there had been leaks they would have to look at what information is publicly available. She did note that the “News18 video is very sensational.”
Delhi Police’s Response
Additional Solicitor General SV Raju, appearing on behalf of the Delhi Police (via the MHA) reiterated that there had been no official leak of information or documents by the Delhi Police. “There can be an informal leak, but leaking is illegal, we don’t intend to leak. Some officer or peon could have leaked it.”
He also defended the press briefings by the Delhi Police, arguing that they had to respond if they were being maligned. He alleged that there had been leaks from the other side to malign the police and so they had to respond. He also suggested that Disha Ravi could have leaked the alleged chats herself, or those she had sent messages could have leaked the chats to the media.
Arguments by Other Stakeholders
- The News Broadcasting Standards Authority argued that they weren’t the relevant respondent in this case, that the News Broadcasters Association should have been impleaded.
- The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting contended that most of the stories pointed out by the petition were from web articles by the media houses in question, so the Cable TV Regulation Act and the Programme Code were not relevant to most of them. They also denied having received any complaints from Ravi about the channels’ coverage.
- India Today’s lawyer sought to argue that Ravi’s lawyers had not at any point said the WhatsApp chats that were supposed to have been leaked were false, and that not all Ravi’s chats could be considered protected by the right to privacy. He also claimed that India Today accessed information in the public domain, and had not themselves violated Ravi’s right to privacy.
- News18’s lawyer challenged the maintainability of the petition, saying that if no valid complaints had first been filed with the authorities, then the petition couldn’t be filed. They also tried to argue that there was a public interest in the information about the investigation being revealed.
Akhil Sibal’s Rebuttal for Disha Ravi
Sibal responded forcefully to the arguments of the Delhi Police and the other respondents.
On maintainability, he said that the government’s argument about not receiving any complaints was irrelevant as the Cable TV Regulation Act and the Programme Code do not provide any formal mechanism for complaints, and so that could not be a prerequisite for the government to take action.
On the Delhi Police’s claim that they had to defend themselves and hence were putting out tweets and press releases, he argued that there had been no statement by Ravi, or her lawyers about the case, and that the police couldn’t attribute public outcry against the arrest to Ravi. And public criticism was not a valid ground to put out information the way the Delhi Police did.
“The police is not a private person, they have a public duty. Just because there are allegations against the police, the police can’t compromise on investigation like that.”Akhil Sibal, Ravi’s Lawyer
He showed how this argument had specifically been rejected by Justice Bakhru of the Delhi High Court in the Devangana Kalita case. He explained that no action was taken against the police’s note to the press because the information in question had by then been filed in a charge sheet – however, that was not the case with the toolkit case.
Sibal also contested the argument by India Today that they had only published information which was already public, noting that just because something is in the public domain, this does not mean everyone has license to disseminate it.
On News18’s argument of public interest, he again noted that just because a case was in the public interest, publishing details of the ongoing investigation would not be so if they prejudiced the right to a fair trial.
Returning once again to the Delhi Police’s press briefings, he said these were not in compliance with the MHA’s 2010 Advisory and several recent judgments of the high courts and the Supreme Court. “Till the filing of the charge sheet, materials from the case file shouldn't be shared with the media,” he argued.
What Does the Petition Say?
The petition filed by Ravi’s lawyers has asked the Delhi High Court to restrain the police from leaking probe material to media, and to ensure responsible reporting on the case by the media.
Examples of the media’s “biased and defamatory coverage” cited in the petition include:
- Tweets and programme segments by News18 about an alleged WhatsApp chat between Disha and Greta Thunberg where she reportedly worried about UAPA being invoked against them. The video also includes claims about ‘admissions’ allegedly made by Ravi to the police during questioning.
- Programmes/stories by India Today and Times Now reproducing alleged private conversations between Disha and Greta on WhatsApp.
- Articles by DNA and Zee News making further claims about alleged admissions and confessions.
The petition has asked the court to order the Delhi Police to not leak any investigation material relating to the case, including alleged contents of private chats and communications to any third party, including the media.
It also asks for action to be taken by the Centre and the NBSA under relevant mechanisms against News18, India Today, Times Now and any other media house for publishing alleged private chats between Disha and others, and for the channels to take down their existing stories that contain this material.
Finally, it also asks the High Court to restrain all TV channels from disseminating any other alleged private chats and conversations of Disha Ravi till the trial is concluded.
To justify these requests, Ravi’s lawyers have cited the Delhi High Court’s order slamming the Delhi Police for leaks of investigation material relating to Devangana Kalita, as well as specific guidelines on media coverage of the Centre and the NBSA.
The coverage by the media thus far is also alleged to violate the Bombay High Court’s recent order on media trials in the context of coverage of the death of Sushant Singh Rajput.
The Delhi Police’s Claims Against Disha Ravi
Ravi was arrested from Bengaluru on Saturday, 13 February. During her remand hearing on Sunday, 14 February, Ravi denied being part of any conspiracy and said, "I was just supporting farmers.” She added that she didn't create the toolkit, and just made two edits to it.
However, the Delhi Police said that Ravi was one of the editors of the toolkit Google Doc and a “key conspirator in the document’s formulation and dissemination.” A Delhi magistrate later remanded the climate activist to five days’ police custody.