On 11th May, the apex court while granting relief to Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, extended the interim protection granted to him till the bench passes an order on his pleas to transfer the investigation of the FIRs filed against him with regards to Palghar mob-lynching and Bandra migrant gatherings, to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The divisional bench comprising of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah during the proceedings, conducted via video conferencing was hearing a plea filed by the Republic TV editor-in-chief in favor of quashing FIRs filed against him for allegedly disturbing communal harmony and defaming Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
Subsequently, the court reserved its orders which is likely to be pronounced later this week, 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. Additionally, the court stated that it will consider the plea for transferring the investigation to an independent agency.
On 24th April, the court granted three weeks’ interim protection to Goswami while staying all but one FIR against him. “This protection will continue to be in operation till the pronouncement of the court’s order” said the bench comprising of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah, on Monday.
During the hearing, senior advocate Harish Salve, representing Goswami alleged that this was a case of “one political party targeting a journalist”. He 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. Salve also noted 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.
Further, during the hearing, Salve requested the court to quash the FIRs against his client, or to at least issue anticipatory bail to him. However, the bench suggested putting these requests to the Bombay High Court rather than the Supreme Court, during which time the interim protection granted by the apex court to Goswami on 24th April would continue. To this, advocate Salve suggested that the investigation should be transferred to the CBI.
“Goswami had “made serious allegations against the local police” in his programs (a point which had been raised in 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,” observed Salve.
Thereafter, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for the state of Maharashtra alleged that transfer of the case to CBI meant the investigation would be in Goswami’s hands, as a result. Meanwhile, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta objected to this statement, while Salve said that this showed Goswami had been “caught in the crossfire” between the Centre and the state.
Goswami’s first petition was concerning the multiple FIRs registered against him in various states, after he accused Congress chief Sonia Gandhi of orchestrating the Palghar lynching incident wherein on 16th April, three Hindu religious leaders, who were on their way to Silvassa were lynched by local residents in Gadakchinchale village of Palghar district on the suspicion that they were thieves.
Subsequently, the first information report by Congress minister Nitin Raut was initially filed in Nagpur, however, the apex court transferred the matter to Mumbai. Goswami was investigated by the Mumbai Police for over 12 hours in relation to the FIR.
Goswami’s advocate Salve had in the Monday’s hearing raised questions about the investigation of the case, noting that his client 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 programs.
As per sources, Salve argued that “There has to be a balance between Article 19(1)(a) and sanctity of the criminal investigation.”
“Either hear our matter on merits or transfer the matter to CBI. There could be a chilling effect on the freedom of press,” he added.
Meanwhile, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also mentioned to the bench 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 offense was made out.
Nonetheless, Kapil Sibal defended the Mumbai Police, arguing that Goswami was not harassed in any way and that he had been asked a set of consolidated questions when interrogated by the police. He further accused Goswami of communal hate-mongering and said that he stigmatized people by way of sensationalizing things.
After a sharp exchange of arguments of advocates from both the parties, the bench then decided to reserve their order on transferring the investigation to the CBI which would likely be announced later this week, and extended the interim protection from arrest granted to Goswami till further orders.