Free Journalist Prashant Kanojia Jailed For “Defaming” Yogi Adityanath: Supreme Court

The Supreme Court was hearing a petition by Prashant Kanojia’s wife, challenging his arrest by the Uttar Pradesh.

Journalist Prashant Kanojia was arrested by the UP police on Saturday.

Journalist Prashant Kanojia’s arrest by the Uttar Pradesh police for “defaming” Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath “is not murder”, the Supreme Court said today, ordering his release.

The top court was hearing a petition by Mr Kanojia’s wife, challenging his arrest on Saturday. “Normally we don’t entertain these type of petitions. But a person can’t spend 11 day’s in jail,” the Supreme Court said.

A total of five people, including Mr Kanojia, were arrested in two days on charges of posting allegedly objectionable content about the Chief Minister. The arrests over the weekend sparked a huge debate on social media on freedom of expression in the country, with the Editors Guild of India terming the journalists’ arrests “high-handed and arbitrary”. The editors’ body had said it amounted to “authoritarian misuse of laws”.

“It is made clear this order is not construed as an approval of tweets,” the Supreme Court said, while hearing Jagisha Arora’s petition which was filed on Monday.

SC Upholds Free Speech Rights, Orders Immediate Release of Prashant Kanojia

Prashant Kanojia. Image: Facebook/Prashant Kanojia

The vacation bench of Justices Indira Banerjee and Ajay Rastogi observed that Kanojia’s arrest and remand were illegal and went against personal liberty, LiveLaw reported. The court also turned down the state’s submission that the petitioner should approach the lower court or high court for bail.

The order came in a habeas corpus petition filed by Kanojia’s wife, Jagisha Arora, seeking his release. Arora’s lawyers, Nitya Ramakrishnan and Shadan Farasat, argued that the FIR against Kanojia has been filed under Sections 500 of the IPC and 66 of the Information Technology Act – both bailable offences.

Their petition laid out procedural lapses on the part of the police, including not presenting Kanojia before a magistrate and no arrest memo being prepared.

Two sections were later added to the charges, which were not on the original FIR – IPC Section 505 and IT Act Section 67. Arora’s petition says that “neither of these sections are even prima-facie made out”.

Kanojia, was picked up from his residence in Delhi by plain-clothed officials of the UP police. In a statement on Saturday, the state police detailed the charges and said that Kanojia had accepted his crimes after “strict questioning”

According to the statement, Kanojia made “obscene comments” and “spread rumours” on social media and his arrest was necessary “to send a message” that this would not be tolerated.

Appearing before the court for the Uttar Pradesh government, additional solicitor general Vikramajit Banerjee said that Kanojia’s arrest was not just for his comments against the state chief minister.

When Justice Rastogi asked on what basis Section 505 of the IPC had been invoked – a serious charge which involves the accused spreading rumours with a view to inciting violence and disaffection – Banerjee cited a number of tweets by the journalist that were “about gods and goddesses, tweets not restricted to political figures. His tweets are very strong, very inflammatory,” Bar&Bench reported.

Curiously, all of these “inflammatory” tweets were posted by Kanojia well before the tweet that finally led to his arrest, and some date as far back as 2016.

The bench rejected the state’s stand, which it said was against personal liberty. The court said that while it “did not appreciate” Kanojia’s tweets,” it questioned whether he could be “put behind bars for that”.

“The court need not comment on the contents of the tweets. The question is, should the petitioner have been deprived of his liberty over them. The answer to that is prima facie in the negative. Fundamental rights under Article 19 and 21 are non-negotiable.”

Justice Rastogi further questioned the 11-day remand order, asking: “Is he accused of murder?”

According to The Hindu, the ASG asserted in court that Kanojia’s release would be “construed as an endorsement of his tweets”.

Justice Banerjee responded, “Why should it? It will be treated as an endorsement of his right to personal liberty.”

Arora’s lawyer Ramakrishnan informed the court: “The alleged post on its face value constitutes no criminal offence and [the arrest] is an unwarranted assault on the right to free speech and right to life”.

Kanojia had recently posted on Twitter and Facebook a video of a woman speaking to various TV channels about wanting to marry Adityanath. She claimed in the video that she had been conversing with the chief minister for a long time over video chat and that now she wanted to know if he was willing to spend his life with her.

The journalist posted the videos with his own comment, mocking the chief minister.

Arora’s petition argued that “posting a video clip in the public domain, which has been carried as a news item in major media outlets is no offence. Furthermore, to add a comment by way of a hackneyed one-liner “love cannot be hidden” is hardly defamatory or a crime warranting police action.”

The UP police’s heavy-handed approach has been widely criticised, with a number of journalists’ groups issuing statements condemning the arrest. A protest march was held at the Press Club in New Delhi on Monday afternoon against the action taken.

“We may disapprove these tweets but we disapprove the denial of liberty,” the top court said.

“I believe in Constitution. I have fought this case. I am happy,” a visibly tired Jagisha Arora told reporters outside the Supreme Court, soon after the hearing.

Prashant Kanojia, a freelance journalist, was arrested by Uttar Pradesh police in Delhi on Saturday for a tweet that had “objectionable comments” on Yogi Adityanath. Mr Kanojia, was picked up from his home in Delhi after a complaint by a police officer in Lucknow, alleging he tried to “malign” Yogi Adityanath’s image. He had shared a video on Twitter and Facebook where a woman is seen speaking to reporters of various media organisations outside Yogi Adityanath’s office, claiming that she had sent him a marriage proposal.C

The same evening, the head of a private news channel and its editor were arrested in Noida. During a debate on the channel on June 6, the woman, whose video was shared by Prashant Kanojia, had allegedly made defamatory statements against Yogi Adityanath, the police said.