Chief Justice of India SA Bobde on Monday made some sharp observations on the reporting pattern adopted by Republic TV, during the hearing of an appeal filed by the Maharashtra government challenging the Bombay High Court order staying the investigation against the channel's Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami in connection with shows focusing on Palghar lynching case.
A bench, headed by the Chief Justice, told senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Goswami: "You can be old-fashioned and report it differently. Frankly speaking, I cannot stand it. This has never been the level of public discourse."
The top court was hearing an appeal filed by the Uddhav Thackeray government which has challenged the high court order.
The FIRs pertain to Goswami's comments during his TV programmes about Palghar lynching incident and migrants gathering in large numbers in Mumbai's Bandra area during the Covid-19 induced lockdown.
During the hearing conducted through video-conferencing, senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Goswami, said these are not genuine FIRs and one political party has lodged cases in many states.
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing Maharashtra, asked the bench as to how the investigation could be stayed and also cited transcript of Goswami's programmes on which the FIRs were registered.
To this, the Chief Justice replied problem is in the course of investigation, some authorities use unfair means and this is a purely intellectual and verbal matter.
FIRs were registered based on the allegations that Goswami's coverage of Palghar lynching case, which involved death of two sadhus, and a migrant gathering in Mumbai's Bandra, had a communal colour.
The Chief Justice added that police can ask questions, even the statute says that, and the courts should not interfere, but it has to be done in a certain manner.
As Singhvi insisted that the top court should allow the investigation without coercive steps, the Chief Justice observed that while nobody is above the law, some people are targeted with "greater intensity" and need more protection.
"While nobody is above the law, some people are targeted with higher intensity. There is a culture these days that some people need a higher degree of protection," said the bench, also comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and LN Rao.
Singhvi said the high court has stayed the FIR and suspended the probe and this should not have been done.
"How can the state be asked not to investigate a criminal case," he said, adding, "Your Lordship should also see that a message does not go out that some people are above the law", However, the bench observed, "This is purely an intellectual matter related to verbal matter. It is not related to the recovery of some arms etc. You are entitled to investigate but you cannot harass. It can't be done the way it has been done".
The bench then asked Singhvi to spell out what the state would not do.
To this, Singhvi said there would be no arrest and summons to appear before the police would be issued 48 hours in advanced to Goswami.
While opposing Maharashtra's contention that investigation should not be stopped, Salve said Goswami has been interrogated for nearly 17 hours by the police and editorial staffs of the news channel have been subjected to interrogation for around 160 hours.
"Some kind of a joke is going on," he said, adding that CEO, CFO and entire editorial staff of the channel have been interrogated.
"We don't support the argument that nobody should question," the bench observed.
When Salve said that a person can file a defamation case but this is not the case for registration of an FIR, the bench said, "We want some kind of assurances from you and there are some grounds where you should tread cautiously".
Salve, while saying that he would file an affidavit giving details of the cases lodged against the channel in Maharashtra, said that "communalism is the part of the political debate".
"I think we should be conciliatory in such cases," the bench observed while posting the matter for hearing after two weeks
While admitting for final hearing the petition filed by Goswami seeking to quash the two FIRs, the high court had directed the police not to take any coercive action until the disposal of the plea.
Two FIRs were filed against Goswami -- one in Nagpur, which was later transferred to N M Joshi Marg police station in Mumbai following directions from the Supreme Court and another at Pydhonie police station.
The one filed in Nagpur was about a news show aired on the channel on April 21 about the Palghar incident where two religious leaders and their driver were lynched.
The Pydhonie case followed a show aired by Republic TV on April 29 where Goswami had referred to migrants gathering near a mosque outside the Bandra railway terminus during lockdown.