How can we be prosecuted for a report? Editors Guild asks Manipur Government at Supreme Court

Top Court extends protection to members of Editors Guild till 15 September 2023, when it will consider transfer of case to Delhi High Court

On 3 September 2023, the Editors Guild of India (EGI) came under the line of fire for publishing a fact-finding report on 2 September 2023. Multiple FIRs were filed against the executive members of EGI against the report’s findings on the reportage surrounding the Manipur violence by the local media. 

The initial FIR was filed by Ngangom Sarat, a “social worker” in the State under several provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 including criminal conspiracy and defamation. The FIRs also claimed that the report published by the EGI was “incorrect” and had “false statements.” 

Today, EGI informed a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and Manoj Misra that they could not be prosecuted for this report as they were “invited” by the Indian Army to make it. The Bench listed the case for Friday, 15 September 2023, to decide if the case must be transferred to the Delhi High Court. 

What happened?

On 2 September 2023, EGI published a report titled “Report of the fact-finding mission on media’s reportage of the ethnic violence in Manipur.” This report claimed that the reportage of the ethnic violence in Manipur by the vernacular media was partisan. “During the ethnic violence, journalists of Manipur wrote one-sided reports,” they said. 

Criticising the internet ban in the State, the report also concluded that “with the internet suspended, and communication and transport in disarray, the media had to rely almost entirely on the narrative of the state government. This narrative under the N. Biren Singh dispensation became a narrow ethnic one playing up to the biases of the majority Meitei community”.  

Immediately after this, on 3 September 2023, the Manipur Police registered FIRs against EGI’s President Seema Mustafa, and members of the fact finding team Sanjay Kapoor, Seema Guha and Bharat Bhushan. 

One of the pictures in the report depicted a house with smoke with a caption that said smoke was rising from a Kuki home when in fact it was the home of a forest official. EGI acknowledged this mistake and posted the right picture. However, the FIR claimed that the facts published in the news report was “sponsored by Kuki militants,” and was entirely false. 

At the Supreme Court

On 3 September 2023, Chief Minister of Manipur Biren Singh accused the EGI of trying to create more clashes in the State. The next day, the executive committee of the EGI issued a statement saying that they were disturbed by the FIRs registered by the Manipur police. They also stated that the remarks made by the Chief Minister of Manipur sought to intimidate the EGI members. They moved the Supreme Court on 5 September 2023. 

Senior Advocate Shyam Divan made an urgent mention of the matter before the Chief on 6 September 2023. Challenging the FIRs, he claimed that the EGI had serious concerns about the freedom of speech and personal liberty of the journalists especially after the Chief Minister Biren Singh’s alleged intimidation. 

Advocate Kanu Agarwal appearing for the State of Manipur sought for the case be transferred to the Manipur High Court, as the petitioners had approached the Supreme Court directly.

The Court listed the matter for 11 September and extended protection from arrest to all the accused in the case till then.

EGI: We were “invited” by the Army to make the report

On Monday, 11 September 2023, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal appeared for the EGI before the CJI-led Division Bench. He informed them that the EGI did not “volunteer” to make the report, and instead, were invited by the Indian Army in a letter dated 12 July 2023 to make the report. “How can we be prosecuted for this, My Lord?” he exclaimed.

The Chief seemed surprised, and asked “why would the Army ask for such a report?” Sibal responded that it was because the Army wanted an “objective assessment of what is happening on the ground.” 

Sibal also expressed concerns about the case being sent to the Manipur High Court for security reasons, as the houses of two lawyers in the state had reportedly been vandalised. 

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta representing the State of Manipur accused the EGI of making this a “national political issue.” He informed the Bench that the Manipur High Court was functioning “regularly”.  The petitioners were also free to appear online. 

Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud intervened, reminding the counsel that the case concerned the prosecution of the EGI members  for a report. He assured the Solicitor General that the Court would not  quash the FIRs but were contemplating transferring the case to Delhi. Mehta initially resisted this. “This has become a precedent, why Delhi? Why not transfer it to a nearby High Court?” he asked. However, upon the Court’s direction, he agreed to get instructions from the Manipur state government on this matter. 

The Court extended the protection from arrest for the petitioners, and listed the case for Friday, 15 September 2023.