The Orissa High Court has quashed criminal proceedings pending against an Input Editor of OTV (Orissa Television Limited) News Channel for telecasting a telephonic conversation between two men one of whom was a COVID-positive patient who had returned after receiving treatment from the hospital. In the conversation, they had allegedly criticized the government and the treatment received in the hospital which had the potential to dissuade the public from availing the requisite treatment.

While placing reliance on Arnab Ranjan Goswami v. Union of India (2020) 14 SCC 12, the bench highlighted the importance of the freedom of press under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution in a society. “Upon a careful perusal of the complaint/FIR and the transcript of the conversation as placed on record by the Petitioner with the additional affidavit, the Court is satisfied that the offences under which the FIR has been registered are not even prima facie made out against the Petitioner. Indeed, the conversation appears to be a casual one not intended to cause panic in the public. It is highly unlikely that this one conversation would somehow induce the public to avoid treatment for Covid thus resulting in the spread of the pandemic and much less still induce the public to commit offences against the State. The Court is of the view that that the continuation of such criminal case against the Petitioner, who is an Input Editor of OTV is likely to have a chilling effect on press freedom”, a bench of Chief Justice S Muralidhar observed in the matter.

Senior Advocate Gautam Misra appeared for the petitioner and Addl. Standing Counsel Prasanna Kumar Mohanty appeared for the respondent.

The petitioner through the petition sought quashing of the criminal proceeding pending in the Court S.D.J.M., Bhubaneswar against him under Sections 269, 270, 120-B, and 505(1)(b) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) read with Section 52 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

In the pertinent case, an audio recording of a telephonic conversation between two men, one of whom claimed to have returned from a COVID Hospital after being identified as a Corona positive was telecasted by the Orissa Television Limited (OTV) News Channel on August 6, 2020.

The same was also uploaded on Youtube and other social media platforms by OTV. As per the allegation one of the men in the conversation had undermined the seriousness of the corona pandemic and claimed that it would be cured without treatment and medicines.

Pursuant to which, an FIR was lodged stating that the OTV was dissuading the public from availing the requisite treatment thereby causing an increase in the spread of COVID and further causing fear in the public.

It was further alleged that the OTV was spreading false information regarding misappropriation of central government funds for the treatment of COVID patients and admission of fake cases just to meet the daily targets by the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) and other private COVID hospitals.

It was alleged that by creating a trust deficit between the government and the public, the telecast by OTV of the aforementioned audio clip was likely to spread panic and fear and induce the public to commit offences against the State.

The petitioner however submitted that the audio clip was rather a casual conversation between two friends which far from creating panic and anxiety, the conversation has pointers on how to prevent the disease and the importance of using masks.

The bench, therefore after taking consideration the facts in the present case was of the opinion that a perusal of the conversation in its entirety revealed that the there were certain pointers to the precautions a COVID +ive must take.

The bench further noted from the transcript that the conversation in fact highlighted the importance of using masks and taking steps to prevent the spread of the COVID pandemic.

“…This, even while it is critical of some of the measures put in place by the government. Viewed objectively, it cannot be said that the telecasting of the above audio clip would cause unnecessary panic among the public as claimed by the State”, the judgment read.

Accordingly, while allowing the petition, the Court quashed the pending criminal proceedings.

Cause Title: Swadheen Kumar Raut v. State of Odisha