The Supreme Court of India today stayed three FIRs filed by the West Bengal government against four persons, three of them associated with OpIndia, for articles published on the portal. The apex court ordered to stay the FIRs against OpIndia English editor Nupur J. Sharma, OpIndia Hindi editor Ajeet Bharti, CEO Rahul Roushan, and Vaibhav Sharma, husband of Nupur but not associated with the portal. A vacation bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and BR Gavai issued the order while taking up the matter via video conferencing on Friday.
Apart from staying the FIRs, the bench also issued a notice to the West Bengal government. The FIRs were filed in relation to three different news articles related to West Bengal on the portal. These reports were published by other media outlets also, and some of the OpIndia reports were actually based on other media reports, but the Mamata Banerjee govt had chosen to target only OpIndia for the reports.
It the petition filed with the apex court, the four petitioners said that the West Bengal govt is taking extortionist and malafide actions to impose illegal censorship in the state by threatening, scuttling, and gagging honest media houses through misuse of state police. “The Government of West Bengal and its authoritarian Kolkata Police is misusing FIRs and brute police-powers not only to intimidate journalists, but also, to intimidate, threaten, and embarrass the family members of such journalists including senior citizens of the family so as to seek deletion of media reports which bring to the public’s notice the actual state of affairs in the State of West Bengal during these difficult times”, the petition had said.
The petition had said that police were using FIRs to scuttle free speech and issuing notices under section 41A of the CrPC to personally intimidate and harass the petitioners. Moreover, despite repeated requests, the police also refused to share the copy of the FIRs with the Petitioners filed against them and didn’t upload the same on their official website, which is a violation of rules and Supreme Court orders.
The first case was filed in relation to a Hindi article published on OpIndia Hindi on 14th May, which had reported an exchange of words between BJP leader and union minister Debasree Chaudhuri and TMC leaders. The BJP MP from Raiganj had alleged that Mamata Banerjee is planning to convert West Bengal into an Islamic state and merge it with Bangladesh. It was a report on comments by her, and reactions to the same by TMC leaders, which was also reported by several media organisations. But the Bengal government decided to file FIR against OpIndia English editor and her husband, who are residents of Kolkata, and Vaibhav was summoned to the police station on 16th May.
It may be noted that Vaibhav is not related to OpIndia, but one phone number used by Nupur is registered in his name, and only because of that phone number, he was interrogated by police. During the interrogation on May 16, the police had threatened that if the report is not deleted, they will be arrested. Police had even talked to Nupur Sharma’s 68-year old father and issued the same threat. When a copy of the FIR was requested, the police had refused the same.
On the same day, Bengal police issued another notice to Nupur Sharma and her husband to appear at a different police station on 17 May, in relation to another report published on OpIndia English. That report was a curation of a Sunday Guardian report, which had claimed that West Bengal government was secretly disposing of bodies pf deceased Coronavirus patients, and was hiding data of Coronavirus deaths.
Subsequently, Rahul Roushan and Ajeet Bharti were also issued notices by West Bengal police to appear for interrogation in Kolkata, but as the lockdown was imposed full-fledged at that time and they are residents of states outside Bengal, they had expressed inability to travel to Kolkata, and requested to be questioned by video conferencing instead. The police is yet to respond to their requests, and also didn’t provide copies of the FIRs as requested by them.
Then on 8th of this month, another case was filed against the portal, this time for an old report on Azaan being played Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata. This report was published on 7th October last year, and it was also reported by several national and local media houses. Moreover, a video of the same had gone viral on social media. Again, a copy of the FIR was not given to the OpIndia editors.
After the repeated threats by police to get reports deleted, the four persons targeted by the West Bengal government decided to move Supreme Court relief, and accordingly, a petition was filed on 12th June through advocate Ravi Sharma seeking to quash the FIRs. The petition stated that as the content was published only on Internet, actions against them can be taken only by the union government under section 69A of the Information Technology Act, and the state government has no jurisdiction over them. The petitioners also pointed out that police do not have powers under the law to demand the removal of content from the internet.
Hearing the arguments from both the sides through video conferencing today, the Supreme Court bench ordered that further proceedings in pursuance to the FIRs have been stayed. The petitioners were represented by senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani and advocates Sandeep Kapur, Siya Chaudhary, Madhulika Rai. The apex court also ordered to issue a notice to the West Bengal government on the matter. The next hearing in the case is likely to be listed on 14th August.