The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has quashed a First Information Report against a journalist, describing the case as an attack on the freedom of the press, Bar and Bench reported on Wednesday. The journalist, Asif Iqbal Naik, was booked for publishing a report on custodial torture by the police.

Justice Rajnesh Oswal held on Tuesday that the manner in which the FIR was registered clearly reflected mala fides on the part of the police, who chose a “unique method” of silencing the reporter.

“Needless to say that press is often referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy and freedom of the press is vital for the functioning of any democratic country like India,” the court said.

It added: “No fetters can be placed on the freedom of press by registering the FIR against a reporter, who was performing his professional duty by publishing a news item on the basis of information obtained by him from an identifiable source.”

Naik, who is associated with local newspaper Early Times and also Times Now, had published the story about custodial torture in 2018 with the headline “Father of 5 brutally tortured by Kishtwar Police”.

Naik had reported that a man identified as Akhter Hussain was tortured by the police while in illegal confinement. Hussain had suffered critical injuries and was admitted to a hospital, according to the report. Naik had quoted Hussain’s brother, Abdul Gani Hajam, and cousin, Irshad Ahmed, on the report.

Hajam had accused the then Kishtwar superintendent of police, deputy superintendent of police and the station house officer of custodial torture. Hajam had also alleged the police were trying to concoct a story that Hussain had tried to kill himself, according to the report.

Four weeks after the report was published, the police booked the journalist, reported The Wire. Naik was charged under sections 500 (punishment for defamation), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) and 505 (statement conducting to public mischief) of the Ranbir Penal Code.

The Ranbir Penal Code was the main criminal code applicable in Jammu and Kashmir before the special status granted to the erstwhile state under Article 370 was abrogated on August 5, 2019.

The police had also alleged that Naik was attempting to instigate the public to block roads and vandalise property.

During the hearing, Advocate Sunil Malhotra, appearing for Jammu and Kashmir administration, argued that the Naik published false news with an intent to instigate the residents of Kishtawar town to block roads and destroy public property.

Advocate FS Butt, representing Naik, told the court that the FIR was registered to harass his client to stop him from publishing anything against the police and to suppress the media. Butt said that the actions of the police amounted to the infringement of the right to free speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India.

The court said that the report was published on the statements given by the relatives of the man who was tortured. It said that this does not amount to an offence under Section 499 of the Ranbir Penal Code (defamation) as the journalist was doing his duty of reporting the matter.

“Mere fact that FIR was lodged only against the journalist and not against the person who has disclosed the said incident to the journalist prima facie, establishes malice on the part of the respondents,” the judge said.

The court also said that there was no offence under Section 504 as there were no allegations that the journalist provoked anyone to commit breach of public peace.

On Section 505, the court said: “Prima facie there is nothing in the FIR that the petitioner desired to generate the consequences as claimed by the respondents and rather he has performed his professional duty.”