The Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed the arrest of Congress leader Shashi Tharoor and six senior journalists while hearing a plea against the multiple first information reports filed against them for allegedly sharing unverified news about the death of a protestor during the farmers’ tractor rally on January 26, Live Law reported.

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde passed the order while issuing notice on the writ petitions by the politician and the journalists. The bench will consider the petitions after two weeks.

Tharoor and India Today journalist Rajdeep Sardesai had moved the court on February 3. National Herald’s senior consulting editor Mrinal Pande, Qaumi Awaz editor Zafar Agha, The Caravan magazine’s editor and founder Paresh Nath, and The Caravan editors Anant Nath and Vinod K Jose had also approached the court against the FIRs.

The first information reports registered against them include charges of sedition and spreading communal disharmony by “misreporting” the farmer protests. Authorities had clamped down after the death of a protestor, Navneet Singh, during the tractor rally on Republic Day. While his family alleged he was fatally shot, authorities said Singh had died because his tractor overturned.

During the hearing on Tuesday, senior advocate Kapil Sibal requested the bench to grant interim protection from coercive action to the petitioners. The bench was initially reluctant, but Sibal persuaded the court, saying that the “police from different states can land up at the house of the petitioners to arrest them”.

Bobde then asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, “Are you going to arrest them?”

The solicitor general, who was appearing for the Delhi Police, requested that the matter be heard on Wednesday. “Not tomorrow,” the CJI responded. “We will have it after two weeks. We will stay the arrest.”

Meanwhile, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the editor of The Caravan, Vinod K Jose, submitted that the FIRs were baseless. “Where is the crime about reporting?” Rohatgi submitted. “Where is the question of religious sentiments being hurt?”

At this point, the solicitor general countered, saying, “I can show you what horrendous effect these tweets have with such lakhs of followers,” reported Bar and Bench. However, the Supreme Court ultimately decided to stay the potential arrest of the petitioners, and issued notice in the matter returnable in two weeks.

The FIRs

On January 30, the Delhi Police became the fifth one to file a case against Tharoor and six journalists. However, unlike the other states, the first information report filed by the Delhi Police does not include charges of sedition.

The FIR was lodged on a complaint by advocate Chiranjiv Kumar, a central government lawyer at the Delhi High Court. Kumar’s complaint said that the accused spread fake news about a farmer’s death in Delhi on January 26 by blaming the Delhi Police.

The police had said that the accused’s tweets, which were retweeted by others, can “cause mutiny among the ranks of ignorant people, causing panic and violent rebellion, thereby inducing citizens to commit offences against the State or against the public tranquility”.

The Uttar Pradesh Police was the first to file an FIR against the seven in Noida that includes charges of sedition, followed by a similar case filed by the police in Madhya Pradesh. Last week, the state police had also filed a FIR against The Wire’s Founding Editor Siddharth Varadarajan for tweeting an article published on the news website reporting that the farmer who was killed during a tractor rally on Republic Day had died in police firing.

Other FIRs were registered in Gurugram and Bengaluru on January 29, and in Noida on January 28.

The FIRs claim that the accused, in a coordinated and well-timed conspiracy, started a misinformation campaign that it was the Delhi Police that shot a protesting farmer. Most of them invoke sections of the Indian Penal Code on sedition, criminal intimidation, promoting enmity, provocation to break public peace, criminal conspiracy, outraging religious feelings, among others.

The FIRs were registered despite criticism from several media bodies. The Editors Guild of India described the action as a concerted attempt to “stifle and harass” media. On Saturday, journalists also assembled at the Press Club of India in Delhi to protest against the FIRs. The meeting was organised by a number of media bodies, including the Editors Guild of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Delhi Union of Journalists, and Indian Journalists Union.