Supreme Court orders release of journalist arrested for ‘objectionable’ post on UP CM, IJU welcomes order

NEW DELHI, Jun 11: Observing that right to liberty is sacrosanct and “non-negotiable,” the Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered that journalist Prashant Kanojia, arrested for allegedly sharing objectionable posts on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, be immediately released on bail.
Making it clear that granting bail to Kanojia cannot be construed as approval of the posts or tweets, the court also slammed the UP government for the “excessiveness” of its action and questioned his nearly two-week judicial custody, asking, “Is this a case of murder?”
Asserting that the fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution cannot be infringed upon by the state, and that it was not inclined to sit back on technical grounds to deny justice, the court, however, said proceedings against the journalist will go on as per law.
A vacation bench of Justices Indira Banerjee and Ajay Rastogi gave the order while hearing a habeas corpus petition (a writ for producing a person who is under arrest or in unlawful detention before a court) filed by Kanojia’s wife Jagisha Arora, challenging his arrest.
Welcoming the order, Arora said it has reaffirmed her belief in the constitution.
“The Uttar Pradesh police acted in an unconstitutional manner but we followed all the process constitutionally and moved the Supreme Court,” she told reporters outside the Supreme Court.
Asked about the tweet posted by Kanojia, she said it was made on a lighter note and there was nothing inappropriate about them.
“I stand by what he has tweeted as he has not made any indecent remark; rather, it was humorous.”
Arora said once she gets a copy of the order she will go to Lucknow for completing the due legal process.
The court said the arrest was a “glaring case of deprivation of liberty” as Kanojia has been remanded to nearly two-week judicial custody for putting up posts or tweets in social media.
“May be, we don’t appreciate these tweets, but the question is whether he should be behind bars for these social media posts,” it said after perusing the tweets.
“We direct that the petitioner’s husband be immediately released on bail on conditions to the satisfaction of the jurisdictional chief judicial magistrate. It is made clear that this order is not to be construed as an approval of the posts/tweets in the social media. This order is passed in view of the excessiveness of the action taken,” the bench said.
Kanojia had allegedly shared a video on Twitter and Facebook, wherein a woman is seen speaking to reporters of various media organisations outside the chief minister’s office in Lucknow, claiming she had sent a marriage proposal to Adityanath.
An FIR was registered against Kanojia by a sub-inspector at the Hazratganj police station in Lucknow on the night of 7 June, in which it was alleged that the accused made “objectionable comments against the chief minister and tried to malign his image.” The journalist was arrested the next day from his East Delhi home and a Lucknow court remanded him to judicial custody till 22 June. He is currently lodged in a jail in Lucknow.
During the hearing, the apex court said it is granting bail to Kanojia as it disapproves the deprivation of right to liberty by the state.
“A citizen’s right to liberty is sacrosanct and non-negotiable. It is a fundamental right guaranteed under the constitution and cannot be infringed upon by the state,” the bench said, and asked the state to show “magnanimity” in releasing him.
“In the facts of the case, a person can’t be allowed to stand 11 days behind the bars,” the bench said, adding that “the person is behind the bars, which is troubling us.”
The bench also observed that even courts have to bear the brunt of social media. “Sometimes even we have to suffer the brunt of social media. Sometimes it is just and sometimes it is unjust but we have to exercise our powers.”
It said the court need not comment on the nature of the posts or tweets for which action has been taken against the journalist.
“The question is whether the petitioner’s husband, Prashant Kanojia, ought to have been deprived of his liberty for the offence alleged. The answer to that question is prima facie in the negative,” the bench noted in its order.
“The fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution and, in particular, Articles 19 (freedom of speech and expression) and 21 (right to life and liberty) of the constitution of India are non-negotiable,” it said.
Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Vikramjit Banerjee and advocate Swarupama Chaturvedi, appearing for the UP government, said a habeas corpus plea cannot be entertained as the accused is in judicial custody.
The ASG argued that a remand order was passed by the jurisdictional magistrate and the petitioner should first approach the Allahabad High Court.
He said the plea was “not maintainable” and the apex court does not ordinarily entertain writ petitions unless the high court has first been approached.
To this, the bench said, “The law is very clear. A person cannot be deprived of his fundamental rights. Even if it is an Article 32 petition, the Supreme Court can entertain it and the court cannot keep its hands folded when there is deprivation of right to liberty.”
It noted that as a matter of “self imposed discipline and considering the pressure of mounting cases on this court,” it has become the practice of top court to “ordinarily” direct the petitioner should first approach the high court even in cases of violation of fundamental rights.
“However, Article 32, which is itself a fundamental right, cannot be rendered nugatory in a glaring case of deprivation of liberty as in the instant case, where the jurisdictional magistrate has passed an order of remand till 22 June, 2019, which means that the petitioner’s husband, Prashant Kanojia, would be in custody for about 13/14 days for putting up posts/tweets on the social media,” the bench said.
“We are not inclined to sit back on technical grounds. In exercise of power under Article 142 (enforcement of decrees and orders of Supreme Court) of the constitution of India, this court can mould the reliefs to do complete justice,” the bench said while disposing of the petition.
Meanwhile, the Indian Journalists’ Union (IJU) has welcomed the SC’s order.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, IJU President Amar Devulapalli demanded that the other three journalists also be released immediately.
“The order of the apex court granting bail to Prashant Kanojia is a slap on the face of the Yogi Adityanath government, which arbitrarily arrested four journalists for reporting on the social media and in their news outlets. The IJU demands that the UP government immediately release all the four arrested journalists – Prashant Kanojia, Anuj Shukla, Ishita Singh and Peer Mohammad,” Devulapalli said.
He expressed concern over the growing intolerance among the ruling elite over perceived adverse reporting and contrary opinion in the media. The IJU president asked the working journalists, along with editors and other sections of the civil society, “who cherish the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” to together resist draconian arrests and threats, in the interest of democracy and the rule of law. (With PTI input)