Nobody above law, but some people targeted with higher intensity: Supreme Court

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Press freedom is crucial but “there has to be responsibility in reporting” and “there are some areas one has to tread with caution”, the Supreme Court said Monday while hearing the Maharashtra government’s appeal against the Bombay High Court stay on the police probe against Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami over alleged inflammatory remarks during news shows.

The court, however, added that “some people are targeted” by the powers that be “with higher intensity” and “need a higher degree of 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,” Chief Justice of India S A Bobde remarked as Senior Advocate A M Singhvi urged the SC to lift the stay saying the court should see that a message does not go out that some people are above the law.

Turning to Senior Counsel Harish Salve who appeared for Goswami, the CJI, heading a three-judge bench comprising Justices Y Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao, said, “Keeping your client aside, while we agree with freedom of press, we don’t appreciate the proposition that as a person from the media your client should not be asked any question.”

“Our most important concern as a court of law is peace and harmony in the society”, the CJI said, adding that “nobody is immune to being questioned”.

CJI Bobde told Salve that “we want a sense of assurance from you of responsibility”.

Salve replied that society is fragile and he understands that freedom of speech comes with responsibility but urged the court not to take the FIRs in question on face value.

Observing that while there was no need to subscribe to a certain way of reporting and it can be done responsibly, the CJI said, “You don’t have to always go as per the mores of the day… You can be a little old-fashioned…Frankly speaking I can’t stand it. This is not the kind of public discourse we should have.”

The bench asked Goswami and the Maharashtra government to file affidavits giving details of all the cases and FIRs registered against Arnab Goswami and Republic TV and the course of action each proposed to follow.

The court will now hear the matter after two weeks.

Earlier in the hearing, Singhvi wondered how the state can be asked not to investigate a criminal case and cited judgements to back his argument.

The bench responded: “This is purely an intellectual matter related to verbal matter” and “is not related to the recovery of some arms etc”.

“You are entitled to investigate but you cannot harass”, it said and asked the state how it would ensure this. Singhvi replied that there would be no arrest and that summons will be issued 48 hours in advance.

Opposing the state’s plea, Salve said Goswami has been interrogated for nearly 17 hours by the police and that various employees of the channel have been questioned.

Two FIRs had been filed against Goswami. They relate to the comments made by him on the lynching of two sadhus and their driver in Maharashtra’s Palghar, and the gathering of migrant labourers near the Bandra railway station during the Covid-19 lockdown.

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