The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted protection from arrest to two advocates and one journalist who have been booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) in connection with their social media posts and work related to the recent communal violence in Tripura.
The Bench headed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and also comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and Surya Kant also issued notice to State of Tripura and the Central government on the petition which, besides seeking quashing of the case against the petitioners, also challenged the powers of Section 2(1)(o) of UAPA which defines ‘unlawful activity’.
“Issue notice and no coercive action (against the petitioners) in meantime,” the Court directed.
The Court, however, declined to tag the plea with other earlier petitions challenging the powers of certain other provisions of UAPA.
The Tripura Police had booked the petitioners including journalist Shyam Meera Singh and certain other activists and lawyers for offences punishable under the UAPA.
Thereafter, they moved the Supreme Court seeking to quash the first information report (FIR) registered against them. According to Singh, the BJP-led Tripura Government had slapped UAPA charges against him for his tweet which said, “Tripura is burning.”
The plea sought to quash the First Information Reports (FIRs) registered against the petitioners and all subsequent and consequential proceedings arising from the FIRs as, “violative of the freedom of speech & expression of the petitioners protected under article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India; malafide; abuse of process of law; and as the FIR prima facie discloses no cognizable offences.”
The petitioners also assailed Section 2(1)(o) read with Sections 13 and 43D(5) of the UAPA.
While Section 2(1)(o) defines ‘unlawful activity’, Section 13 provides for punishment for ‘unlawful activity’ and Section 43D(5) lays down restrictions on grant of bail for UAPA offences.
The petitioners contended that the definition of ‘unlawful activity’ prohibits innocuous speech by threat of punishment.
“The definition casts a ‘wide net’ on freedom of speech and expression and makes even ideas, thoughts and discussions which pose no threat to security of India and have no tendency to create public disorder punishable under Section 13 of the Act of 1967. The over broad language of the section leaves open the possibility that the person criticising measures of government or acts of public officials, might also come within the ambit of the penal section,” the plea said.
The petition filed through advocate Prashant Bhushan, stated that the definition of ‘unlawful activity’ is vague and it fails to define criminal offence with sufficient definiteness.
“The unlawful activities are defined in such a vague manner to make its application solely on the discretion of police machinery. Neither the accused would be put on notice as to what exactly is the offence which has been committed nor would the authorities administering the section be clear as to on which side of the draw a particular speech/expression will fall,” the petition stated.
Terms like “sovereignty and territorial integrity of India” and “disaffection against India” used in the Section are very broad, the petitioners submitted.
Moreover, due to the absolute bar on anticipatory bail under Section 43D(4) of the Act and the impossibility of securing bail under Section 43D(5) of the Act, Section 2(1)(o) produces a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression, the plea said.
It is, therefore, a provision that forces people to self censor their views because of fear of criminal action and therefore violates freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of Constitution of India, the petitioners contended.
Earlier, two other journalists, Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha, who were detained by the Tripura Police for their reports on the communal violence in the State, were granted bail by Chief Judicial Magistrate court in Gomati district.