Content Regulation / Censorship, Hate Speech, National Security
Government of Kazakhstan v. Respublika
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The High Court of Uttarakhand held that the mere leveling of false allegations against the government or its functionaries cannot be sedition, unless it incites violence and disturbs public peace. The Chief Minister of Uttarakhand brought the case in response to a video posted on social media by journalist Umesh Kumar Sharma, which alleged the minister was engaged in corruption. Although some of the allegations were proven false, the Court rejected the State’s argument that Kumar intentionally spread lies to foment hatred against the Government. The Court affirmed that criticism of government action, even when strongly worded, is consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. The judge further emphasized that in a democracy, dissent should always be respected.
On June 24, 2020, Mr. Umesh Kumar Sharma, a journalist, uploaded a video on a social media page, showing documents on a computer screen with certain bank accounts allegedly belonging to Dr. Harender Singh Rawat and his wife Ms. Savita Rawat. The petitioner asserted that Mr. Amratesh Singh Chauhan had deposited money in the bank accounts of Mr. Harender Singh Rawat and Mrs. Savita Rawat for paying the Chief Minister of Uttrakhand, Mr. Trivendra Singh Rawat, which was taken by him as a bribe for appointing Mr. Amratesh Chauhan as President of the Cow Sewa Commission. In the video, the petitioner also claimed that Mrs. Savita Rawat was the real sister of the wife of the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand.
After the publication of the video, Dr. Harender Singh Rawat requested a police enquiry and stated that he had no connection with the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand. He also stated that his wife Mrs. Savita Rawat was not the sister of the wife of Chief Minister of Uttarakhand and that no money was deposited in his or his family member’s account during demonetization. He requested that the false allegations leveled by the petitioner in the social media publication should be investigated.
A series of first information reports (FIRs) were filed against the petitioner and one of the charges in the FIR was that of section 124-A of Indian Penal Code, 1890. As per the section, “whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which a fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added, or with a fine.
The present case was presided over by Justice Ravindra Maithani of the High Court of Uttrakhand. One of the central issues for consideration was whether the corruption charges leveled by the journalist against the government officials could be considered as sedition under section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1890.
The State argued that the false allegation of corruption leveled by the petitioner against the Uttrakhand Chief Minister, Mr. Trivendra Singh Rawat, and a retired professor Dr. Harendra Singh Rawat and his wife in social media had harmed their image. It was further contended that these comments revealed that the petitioner acted with the intent to incite hatred against the Government of Uttarakhand. The State argued that the petitioner intended to create turmoil in the State of Uttarakhand by way of a sustained and dishonest campaign against the Government of Uttarakhand and therefore, his actions fell within the ambit of section 124-A IPC [p. 80].
While questioning the counsel of the State, the judged noted that “the allegations against the petitioner are twofold – that he gave a false statement that any amount was deposited in the account of the informant and his family members, and he gave another false statement that the wife of the informant was the real elder sister of the wife of Chief Minister of Uttrakhand. How can these allegations attract the provision of Section 124-A IPC? Even if it is alleged that the Chief Minister has taken a bribe, how is Section 124-A IPC attracted?”[p. 85].
While emphasizing freedom of speech and expression, the judge made reference to the statement made by Indian freedom fighter, Bal Gangadhar Tilak who had stated that “the law (of sedition) may be rigid; the law may be harsh. Stand between me and the law and protect me because I represent the liberty of the press.” Likewise, the Court made reference to Mahatma Gandhi who had said that “section 124 A is the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence” [p. 85].
The Court further made reference to the Constituent Assembly debates, where M. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar had stated that “the word ‘sedition’ has become obnoxious in the previous regime. We had therefore approved of the amendment that the word ‘sedition’ ought to be removed, except in cases where the entire state itself is sought to be overthrown or undermined by force or otherwise, leading to public disorder; but any attack on the government itself ought not to be made an offence under the law. We have gained that freedom and we have ensured that no government could possibly entrench itself, unless the speeches lead to an overthrow of the State altogether” [p. 86].
The Court also referred to Kedar Nath Singh case [AIR 1962 SC 955] where the constitutional validity of Section 124-A was examined. The Supreme Court in that case had observed that “criticism of public measures or comment on government action, however strongly worded would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression” [p. 87]. Herein, the Court had stated that unless the alleged activities tend to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resorting to violence, it will not be sedition [p. 88].
Relying on the above mentioned cases, the Court in the present case ruled that, “leveling false allegations against a person can never be sedition, unless, it qualifies the test laid down in the case of Kedar Nath Singh. If allegations are leveled against the representatives, it alone cannot be sedition. Criticizing the government can never be sedition. Unless the public functionaries are criticized, democracy cannot be strengthened. In democracy, dissent is always respected and considered, if it is suppressed under sedition laws perhaps, it would be an attempt to make the democracy weak” [p. 89]. The judge further opined that the addition of section 124-A IPC in the instant case indicated an attempt of the State to muzzle the voice of criticism, to muffle complaint/dissent. The Court found the addition of sedition charges beyond comprehension [p. 89] and therefore, quashed the proceedings against the petitioner.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
In the instant case, the judge expanded expression by quashing the First Information Report (FIR) filed against a journalist who had accused the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand of corruption. The judge emphasized that “criticizing the government can never be sedition. Unless the public functionaries are criticized, democracy cannot be strengthened. In democracy, dissent is always respected and considered, if it is suppressed under sedition laws perhaps, it would be an attempt to make the democracy weak”. The judge also noted that the State was trying to muzzle the voice of dissent by charging the accused journalist under the sedition law.
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