New Delhi: In a relief to four members of the Editors Guild of India (EGI), the Supreme Court Wednesday directed the Manipur police not to take any coercive steps against them till September 11 in connection with two FIRs lodged for offences including promoting enmity between two communities.

On September 4, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh had said a police case had been filed on the basis of a complaint against the president and three members of the Editors Guild of India and accused them of trying to “provoke clashes” in the state.

A second FIR was also registered against the four members of the Guild, with the additional charge of defamation.

“Till next date of listing, no coercive step shall be taken against the (four) petitioners in connection with the FIRs…,” a bench comprising Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and Justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra ordered after a brief hearing.

The top court also sought the response of the state government on the plea filed by the Guild and fixed the matter for hearing on Monday.

Initially, the bench was of the view that it will protect the EGI members against possible coercive State action for a limited period and, in the meantime, they can move the Manipur High Court for relief.

However, the bench later kept the case to itself after hearing senior advocate Shyam Divan who appeared for the journalists’ body.

Giving details of the case, Divan said the Editors Guild had prepared a report after sending three of its members to the ground in Manipur.

“They (EGI members) went there for four days between August 7 and August 10, 2023 and they published a report. The report is dated September 2, 2023, and there was a small error in the report which was corrected immediately on September 3,” he said.

The senior lawyer said two FIRs were lodged on the basis of the report alleging that “incorrect and false statements” have been made in it which provokes enmity.

“This is why we are here and we are very seriously apprehending that this kind of coercive machinery may act against us,” he said, adding even the chief minister made a statement at a press conference to allege EGI made “provocative statements”.
Taking note of submissions, the bench protected the EGI members till Monday.

Earlier, the top court agreed to hear their plea, which was not listed, on an urgent basis during the day itself.

The initial complaint against the EGI president and its three members was filed by Ngangom Sarat Singh, a retired engineer who had worked for the state government.

The second FIR was lodged by Sorokhaibam Thoudam Sangita of Khurai in Imphal East district.

Besides EGI president Seema Mustafa, those who have been booked are senior journalists Seema Guha, Bharat Bhushan and Sanjay Kapoor. They visited the state between August 7 and 10 to study media reportage on the ethnic violence.

The Editors Guild, in a report published on September 2, 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.

“They are anti-state, anti-national and anti-establishment (people) who came to pour venom. Had I known it before, I would not have allowed them to enter,” the chief minister had said.

The EGI said in its report it received several representations about media in Manipur playing a partisan role in the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Meitei and Kuki-Chin communities.

“There are clear indications that the leadership of the state became partisan during the conflict. It should have avoided taking sides in the ethnic conflict but it failed to do its duty as a democratic government which should have represented the entire state,” the report said.

In normal circumstances, the EGI said, reports filed by journalists are cross-checked and monitored by their editors or chiefs of bureau with the local administration, police and security forces, but this was not possible during the conflict.

“The internet ban made matters worse. Communication blockade by the government had a deleterious effect on journalism as it directly impacted the ability of journalists to communicate with each other, their editors and their sources. It also impacted the media because local news gathered without any communication links was not sufficient to give a balanced view of the situation,” the report said.

With the internet suspended, and communication and transport in disarray, the media had to rely almost entirely on the narrative of the state government, it said.

The EGI said members of the state leadership labelled sections of the Kuki-Zo tribals as “illegal immigrants” and “foreigners” without any reliable data or evidence.

“This despite the fact that the decadal census from 1901 to 2011 has not shown any unusual growth of the non-Naga (the other minority tribal community) tribal population,” the report said.

The Editors’ Guild members were booked under various sections of the IPC including 153A (promoting enmity between two communities), 200 (using false declaration as true), 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), and under provisions of the Information Technology Act and Press Council Act.

The second FIR, besides these charges, also has Section 499 (defamation) of IPC added to it.

The Manipur government had earlier filed an FIR against a three-member fact-finding team of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) for a report on the ethnic conflict.

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More than 160 people have lost their lives and several hundred injured since the ethnic clashes broke out in Manipur on May 3, after a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ was organised in the hill districts to protest against the Meitei community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.

Meiteis account for about 53 per cent of Manipur’s population and live mostly in the Imphal Valley. Tribals Nagas and Kukis constitute little over 40 per cent and reside in the hill districts.

ALSO READ | Curfew relaxed in 5 valley districts of Manipur

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