The Supreme Court on Monday issued orders barring any coercive action against two Telugu news channels — TV5 and ABN Andhrajyothy — that have been charged with sedition for airing statements made by a rebel YSRCP MP in Andhra Pradesh. The apex court said that the investigation into the FIR registered against the channels can continue but no coercive action can be initiated against them until the next hearing. The court added that if the police violate orders, contempt notices can be issued against them. The bench comprising Justices DY Chadrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra agreed that prima facie, the charges levelled against the two media houses were an “attempt to muzzle free speech.”
Justice Chandrachud said that it is time to ‘define the limits’ of sedition and elaborate on the scope of offences under section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Justice Chandrachud said that he thought of this case during a different hearing over the Union government’s handling of the COVID-19 situation, where he was told about the news report showing the body of a COVID-19 patient being thrown into a river, and wondered if there was a sedition complaint against the news channels for showing the video.
“We are of the view that provisions of 124A (sedition) and 153 (promoting enmity between classes) of the IPC require interpretation, particularly on the issue of the rights of press and free speech,” the court said. Representing TV5, senior advocate Shyam Divan argued that their petitioners were deliberately targeted by singling them out, while several other news channels who had aired YSRCP rebel MP K Raghu Rama Krishnam Raju’s statements did not see any action taken against them.
The rebel MP, Krishnam Raju, who represents the Narsaparum Parliamentary constituency, has been accused of making hate speeches and creating tension between communities. Subsequently, he was arrested under charges of sedition by the Andhra Pradesh Crime Investigation Department (CID) on May 14. The top court had earlier granted bail to the lawmaker in connection with the case. In the same case, TV5 and ABN Andhrajyothy, were included as accused for giving airtime to Krishnam Raju with “premeditated controversial opinions.” They were accused of conspiring with Krishnam Raju and giving him predetermined slots.
TV5’s counsel, Divan, said that the inquiry report of CID was an assault on free speech. “The duty of TV channels is to show points of view, irrespective of however harsh it is,” he said. Reading out the First Information Report, Justice Nageswara Rao agreed that it appeared that the case was an attempt to muzzle the media.
After hearing the arguments, Justice DY Chandrachud said, “If a TV channel says something, it cannot be called sedition. We will issue notice and stay any coercive action.” Senior advocate Sidarth Luthra representing ABN Andhrajyothy news channel, however, asked the bench to stay the investigation as well. Justice Chandrachud said that they will not stay the investigation but no coercive action shall be taken against their parties until the next hearing.