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SC restrains HP police from arresting journalist Vinod Dua in sedition case, refuses to stay probe

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New Delhi: In a relief to senior journalist Vinod Dua, the Supreme Court in a special hearing on Sunday restrained the Himachal Pradesh police from arresting him till “further orders” in a sedition case filed against him by a local BJP leader over his YouTube show.

The top court, however, refused to stay the ongoing probe and said Dua will have to join the investigation “through video-conferencing or online mode” as offered by him in his response to the summons issued by the police seeking his personal appearance.

“Pending further orders, the petitioner (Dua) shall not be arrested in connection with the present crime,” a bench of Justices U U Lalit, M M Shantanagoudar and Vineet Saran said while issuing notices to the Centre and the state government for July 6, the next date of hearing.

“However, the petitioner (Dua) in terms of the offer made by him in his communication dated June 12, shall extend full cooperation through video-conferencing or online mode; and the HP police shall be entitled to carry on the investigation including interrogation of the petitioner at his residence after giving him prior notice of 24 hours and complying with the social distancing norms prescribed during Covid-19 pandemic,” the bench said.

The top court, in the hearing conducted via a video link, asked the police to file a status report on the steps taken during the investigation. The Centre will have to also file its response within two weeks.

“The concerned investigating officer shall remain personally present in case the open court hearing is resumed by this court or shall be available in case the proceedings are taken up through video-conferencing mode,” it ordered.

The bench, meanwhile, directed Dua to make complainant Ajay Shyam also a party to his plea and issued notice to the BJP leader as well for July 6.

An FIR against Dua under IPC provisions for offences of sedition, public nuisance, printing defamatory materials and public mischief was lodged by BJP leader Shyam at Kumarsain police station in Shimla district on May 6 and the journalist was asked to join the probe.

Shyam has alleged that Dua, in his programme, accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using “deaths and terror attacks” to get votes.

Senior advocate Vikas Singh, appearing for Dua, demanded quashing of the FIR, saying the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression of the journalist has been taken away by filing the sedition case.

Singh said if such charges are slapped against individuals then many of them may fall within the ambit of sedition charges.

Besides seeking quashing of the FIR, Dua’s plea has sought “exemplary damages” for “harassment”. He has also sought direction from the apex court that “henceforth FIRs against persons belonging to the media with at least 10 years standing be not registered unless cleared by a committee to be constituted by every state government, the composition of which should comprise of the Chief Justice of the High Court or a Judge designated by him, the leader of the Opposition and the Home Minister of the State.”

Dua has said freedom of the press is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

The plea said the top court has been “emphasizing for distancing the police from the ruling party in the state” but “none of the major political parties which are in power in various states are ready to give up their control over the police”.

“There is a recent trend against the media where state governments which do not find a particular telecast to be in sync with their political ideologies register FIRs against persons of the media primarily to harass them and to intimidate them so that they succumb to the line of the state or else face the music at the hands of the police,” the plea claimed.

Lodging of FIR and coercive steps against Dua amounted to “direct and brazen violation” of his fundamental rights, the plea said.

The plea claimed there is a concerted approach of authorities “to silence the media which is not palatable to them”. It alleged that the FIR registered against Dua is “politically motivated” and is “purely to settle scores for critically evaluating the functioning of the central government at the present time of COVID”.

“The restriction imposed against free speech refers to issues which are a threat to public order, decency, morality, and the security of the state. In the case of the petitioner (Dua) facts which are publicly verifiable and are true have been treated as a ground for sedition and other serious offences which are far from the truth,” it said.

The plea said Dua is a senior citizen with co-morbidities, including hypertension and diabetes.

The Delhi High Court earlier stayed an investigation into another case against Dua.

Like the complaint lodged in the national capital, the FIR registered against him in Shimla is also over his YouTube show on communal riots in Delhi earlier this year.

On Wednesday, the Delhi High Court stayed till June 23 an investigation into a similar case filed by BJP spokesperson Naveen Kumar.

The court said there was an unexplained delay of nearly three months in filing the complaint.

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