The Allahabad High Court on Tuesday granted Scroll.in Executive Editor Supriya Sharma protection from immediate arrest in connection with a first information report registered by the Uttar Pradesh Police against her for a report from the prime minister’s constituency on the effects of the country’s lockdown to combat the coronavirus.
The FIR, filed on June 13, booked Sharma under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, as well as Sections 501 (printing defamatory matter) and 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) of the Indian Penal Code. The police also names the “editor-in-chief” of Scroll.in in the FIR.
Scroll.in has reported the article accurately and stands by it.
A bench of Justices Manoj Misra and Anil Kumar said the petition to quash the FIR could not be accepted at the current stage and the investigation in the case would continue. Advocates Swetashwa Agarwal and Raghav Dwivedi, representing Sharma, told the court that Scroll.in has an audio recording that establishes the veracity of the article.
The FIR was based on a complaint filed by Mala Devi, a resident of Varanasi’s Domari village. Sharma had interviewed Mala as part of a series from Varanasi district on the impact of the lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Domari village has been adopted by the prime minister under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana. In the interview, Mala told Scroll.in she was a domestic worker and experienced food distress during the lockdown since she did not have a ration card.
However, Devi in her complaint to the police alleged that Sharma misrepresented her comments and identity. She claimed she was not a domestic worker, but worked as a sanitation worker at the Varanasi city municipality through “outsourcing”. Devi also said that she had not gone hungry due to the lockdown.
“The learned counsel for the petitioners submitted that the petitioners had made audio recording of the interview and the publication was a true representation of what was stated in the interview and the publication was made in public interest to highlight the condition of certain persons,” the court said in its order. “In paragraph 10 of the petition it has been stated that the petitioners have audio recording of the interview. Along with the petition, photographs have also been annexed to demonstrate that the person concerned was contacted.”
The order added: “Under the circumstances, as the allegations disclose commission of cognisable offence, the prayer of the petitioners to quash the first information report cannot be accepted. However, considering the facts and circumstances of the case and keeping in mind that the petitioners claim that they have audio recording of the interview, the contents of which were reflected in the publication, we deem it appropriate to dispose off this petition by providing that investigation of the case shall continue and brought to its logical conclusion but petitioners shall not be arrested in the above case till submission of police report under Section 173 (2)Code of Criminal Procedure provided they cooperate in the investigation.”
The judges also directed the petitioners to provide the authorities with a recording of the interview with Devi if necessary.
The FIR against Sharma had been widely criticised. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi, human rights organisation People’s Union of Civil Liberties and global writers’ association PEN International, Reporters Sans Frontières, also known as Reporters Without Borders, journalists, activists, and writers condemned the FIR, describing it as an attack on the freedom of expression and an attempt to frighten journalists.
The Editors Guild of India, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Network of Women in Media, India, Delhi Union of Journalists and Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists also criticised the action.