The Supreme Court while dealing with the Writ Petition filed by the Editors Guild of India (EGI), seeking quashing of the FIRs filed against four of its members in Manipur, said that making a false statement in an article does not constitute an offence under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code and directed the de facto complainant to explain how the provisions cited in the FIR are applicable.

The Bench of Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice J.B. Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra extended the interim protection granted to the journalists and adjourned the matter to enable the original complainant, who intervened in the matter, to file a counter affidavit in the case. Asking the original complainant to justify the invocation of offences mentioned in the FIRs, the CJI asked, "Making a false statement in an article is not an offence under Section 153A; it may be incorrect. Incorrect information is reported across the country every day. Are you going to prosecute journalists under Section 153A?"

"They are entitled to put forth their viewpoint... It's a report; where does Section 153A come into play?", the CJI asked the complainant.

Incidentally, YouTuber Manish Kashyap was charged under Sections 153, 153A, 153B, 505, B, 505C, 468, 471, 120B, and 67 of IPC for reporting alleged false news about attacks against Bihari migrant workers in Tamil Nadu and the Supreme Court had refused to quash the FIR. "We are not inclined to exercise jurisdiction under Article 32" a Bench led by CJI Chandrachud had then said, asking Manish to approach the High Court. In that case, six FIRs were registered against him and the National Security Act was invoked by the Tamil Nadu government before arresting him. "What is to be done... you produce fake videos..", the CJI had told the lawyer for Manish Kashyap.

In the present case, the complainant was represented by Senior Advocate S. Gurukrishna Kumar who told the Court that if the Editors Guild of India (EGI) chooses to withdraw their report, the complainant will refrain from pursuing his complaint. "This report is exacerbating the existing issues and inciting further problems", the Senior Advocate argued.

In response, Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said, "Please explain how all these offences are established. Let's examine Section 153A, and we want to make it clear that we are considering the jurisdiction to quash. What's going on here?". "In a case like this, your complaint does it even make out a whisper of the ingredients of the offence", added the CJI.

The CJI also remarked, "We are also concerned because the moment somebody says something in print, it may be wrong or right or whatever. Your entire complaint appears to be a counter-narrative to the government. Essentially, you've presented a counter-narrative assuming that what they said is false."

Concluding, CJI directed, "Submit your response and convince us why this is not a case for quashing". Accordingly, the Bench ordered, "Since one of the reliefs which was being sought is of quashing the FIR on the ground that the reading of the complaint does not disclose any of the offences which are sought to be alleged, we grant 2 weeks to file a counter affidavit. There shall be a stay of all further proceedings in the FIR till the next date of hearing."

Earlier during the hearing, the Manipur government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, told the Court it may protect the EGI members for some more time and let the plea be transferred to the Delhi High Court if the bench wished so. However, the Bench indicated that it will entertain the matter and consider whether to quash the FIRs.

Expressing his concern, SG stated, "Your Lordships are potentially inviting hundreds of complaints under Article 32? My only worry is that...". To which, the CJI said that it was the Army who reached out to the Editors Guild of India and requested them to create a comprehensive report. "They were asked to go to the ground and investigate. They complied and submitted a report. Now, whether the contents of the report are right or wrong, that's precisely what free speech entails," stated the CJI.

"I'm not concerned with them; my concern is broader now. Any journalist can express their opinions and counter-opinions, then come before your Lordships and request a transfer of their case. Considering the current circumstances, these actions are all about shaping narratives, whether rightly or wrongly. In these cases and others, individuals or groups can present a particular narrative and then claim they will provide a counter-narrative too," responded the SG.

The Apex Court had on the last date of the hearing clarified that it does not intend to quash the FIRs and asked the SG to take instructions on whether the matter can be transferred either to the Delhi High Court or some other High Court. This was after the Editors Guild of India told the Court that it was not possible to approach the High Court because of the situation existing in the State.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had then told the Court that the intention of the members of the Editors Guild of India is to turn the issue into a national political issue by approaching the Apex Court instead of the Manipur High Court. On the same aspect, SG had commented that "The picture presented, not only by these petitioners but essentially by Mr. Anand Grover, involves facts that have been acknowledged. Even the Bar Association expressed its concerns when it was repeatedly informed that the Court was not functioning, the bar was not in operation, and no lawyers were available. The Bar Association sent a letter to the Registrar General, based on which I have received details provided by the Registrar General to the Bar Association. In the last 15 days, from August 30th to September 14th, a total of 2,683 cases were listed for hearing before various benches of the High Court of Manipur. During the last 30 days, virtual hearings were made available on each working day, and a total of 572 virtual hearing sessions were reported during the same period. Approximately 45 local individuals participated in these virtual hearings. Mr Anand Grover appeared on 6 different days before the Manipur High Court through virtual mode, and Mr. Colin Gonsalves for 2 days. There are a total of 28 advocates empanelled with the Manipur Legal Service Committee who do not belong to either of the two communities. E-filing is also permitted."

The Editors Guild of India had published a fact-finding report concerning the Manipur Violence. Guild slammed the internet ban in the state as being detrimental to media reportage, criticised what it termed as one-sided reporting by some media outlets and claimed there were indications that the state leadership had turned partisan during the conflict period. The Members of the Guild were booked for allegedly trying to provoke clashes in the State.

Cause Title: Seema Guha And Ors. v. The State Of Manipur And Anr. [Diary No. 36780-2023]