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SC stays arrest of Shashi Tharoor, others for tweets on farmer Navreet Singh’s death


New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the arrest of Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and journalists Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Vinod Jose, Aman Nath and Paresh Nath over their controversial tweets on the death of Navreet Singh during the Republic Day tractor rally. Stay on the arrests was given after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Delhi Police, refused to promise that they would not be arrested till the court decided on their pleas to quash the FIRs.

The petitioners had tweeted immediately after Navreet Singh died that he was shot dead, an accusation denied by the Delhi Police. It claimed that Singh was killed when his tractor overturned after he tried to break through the police cordon formed to prevent the tractor rally from advancing.

The petitioners argued that the FIRs were orchestrated to smother free speech and it was an attack on their personal liberty and sought quashing of FIRs on the ground that no prima facie case was made out. Acting on their pleas, a bench led by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde stayed their arrest. The bench was initially inclined to grant interim protection and indicated so to petitioners counsel Kapil Sibal and Rebecca John. “Nothing is going to happen,” CJI Bobde observed when Sibal insisted that the bench protect the petitioners. “Where is the danger?” the CJI asked. Sibal and John were assisted by senior partners Nandini Gore and Sandeep Kapur of Karanjawala & Co.

Mehta would only say, “we know our responsibilities.” But when the CJI later demanded an unequivocal statement on whether the prosecuting agencies would arrest any of them, he did not say anything. “Are you going to arrest?” the CJI asked Mehta. “If you can’t make such a statement, we will stay their arrest,” the CJI said. Mehta opposed the stay of arrest on the ground that their tweets have had a “horrendous effect” as they have a “huge following”. The CJI brushed off his opposition and issued notices to different states where FIRs have been filed. The notice will have to be responded to in two weeks. The court will then examine the pleas of the petitioners for quashing of their FIRs. Multiple FIRs were filed against the Congress leader and the journalists across the country invoking charges of sedition, hurting religious sentiments, creating enmity between different sections and criminal conspiracy, prompting them to move the top court for quashing of these FIRs.

In his petition Sardesai argued that the right to free speech and expression was among the most significant rights guaranteed by the Constitution and upholding it is at the heart of our democracy.

To criminally prosecute for sedition a journalist who was faithfully reporting what he was being told on the ground of a developing situation and taking care to ensure that any inaccuracies are immediately corrected would cause irrevocable damage to freedom of speech and the cause of democracy, he said.

If this harassment is allowed to stand, it will completely demolish any notion of journalistic freedom and foster a situation where free reporting of news is an impossibility. He claimed that the multiple FIRs being filed against him on the basis of the same facts were an orchestrated attempt to smother his right to free speech and an attack on his personal liberty.

It was also an attempt to muzzle the press and would have far-reaching implications for the journalistic community as a whole, he said.

He argued that he was reporting a developing situation and withdrew the tweets within 22 minutes after the police contested this version. His tweets were mere allegations and not verified facts and he had made that clear in his tweets, Sardesai contended.

Despite efforts made by him to diligently report the unfolding events in an unbiased discharge of his journalistic duties, a series of frivolous and malicious FIRs have been filed across the countries, he contended. At least 12 such FIRs have been registered in different parts.

The number of FIRs, the timing, the array of accused and the language suggest an “orchestrated attempt” to misuse the process to target individuals and spread fear, it said.

In any case, such a tweet which was later removed as fresh facts came to light unrelated to caste, creed, religion, communities cannot be the basis of invoking charges such as sedition, hurting religious sentiments and the like.

Lodging of these FIRs was itself a conspiracy to falsely implicate the petitioners and seek to prosecute them for offences which cannot be made out on a prima facie reading of the FIR.

Some sections which have nothing to do with the allegations made in the FIR had been maliciously inserted to harass the petitioners and prejudice their case to scuttle their ability to get bail, it said.

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