Condemning the arrest of two of its editors on Tuesday night, the Zee Group on Wednesday termed the move undemocratic and illegal. The Delhi police arrested Sudhir Chaudhary, editor of Zee News, and Samir Ahluwalia, editor of Zee Business, on a complaint by Naveen Jindal of Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL).
The company’s name figured in the Rs1.86 lakh crore coal block allocation scam. The Zee News group, which has been aggressively covering the scam and JSPL’s role in it, has demanded the immediate release of its editors.
Alok Agarwal, CEO of Zee News, rubbished Jindal’s allegations of extortion by the editors. Agarwal pointed out that it was JSPL which had approached Zee News to stop its aggressive coverage of the coal scam.
According to him several senior politicians and relatives of Jindal had approached the Zee Group to try and stop the reports that had exposed the benefits that accrued to JSPL after the discretionary allocation of coal blocks.
Senior lawyer RK Handoo, who also addressed the packed press conference, called the arrests an attack on the freedom of the press and an attempt by the government to muzzle the media in light of its exposes on the coal block allocation scam.
According to him the arrest of the editors was “illegal” since both were cooperating with the police in its investigation and the FIR had been recorded more than a month ago.
“The police arrested the editors under section 384 of the Indian Penal Code, which is non-bailable. The right section should have been section 385, which is bailable,” Handoo said. “The police is working under pressure from the Congress government.”
JSPL had filed an FIR against the Zee Group on October 2. Questioning the timing of the arrests, Handoo said, “Why were these arrests not made on the day the FIR was lodged? There was no exchange of money between the two parties and the application of section 384 by the Delhi police is illegal. The police knew it very well that they cannot make any arrests in the case, hence they are resorting to such tactics.”
Justice RS Sodhi, former judge of the Delhi high court, said the “police had exceeded its power”. “An arrest is required only when some recovery of goods, weapon of offence or documents etc is to be effected,” he said.
In this case, if the investigating agency had concluded its inquiry, it ought to have filed a final report before the magistrate concerned and left it to the judicial process to assess the evidence and take an appropriate decision.
“I have always maintained no authority is authorised in law or by the Constitution to play with the citizens’ right to life and liberty,” Sodhi said.
“Unfortunately, the judicial parameters have been thrown to the winds by the police,” Sodhi said.
Manoj Goel, another noted lawyer who has been in the forefront of various legal battles to protect fundamental rights, said, “The manner in which the investigating agency has acted, particularly the way in which the arrests of the senior journalists have been effected, leave no doubt as to the malafide and motivated intentions behind the whole exercise.”
“The bogey of custodial investigation and interrogation is make-believe... the real purpose is to threaten and terrorise the media in general and Zee in particular not to go ahead in its drive against corruption involving the mighty Congressman Jindal,” Goel said.
Senior lawyer Ranjit Kumar said if there was any truth in the story parroted out by the police, an independent investigation would be the only imperative step. In the absence of legally sustainable charges, the action against a media house or a group of journalists would amount to “muzzling the press”.
The Zee editors were produced in the Delhi metropolitan magistrate’s court on Wednesday. Defence counsel for the editors Rebecca M John told the Duty Metropolitan Magistrate Gomati Manocha that the first meeting between the two parties was actually initiated at the behest of JSPL.
She also pointed out that the CAG had named JSPL as one of the major beneficiaries of the coal block allocation scam and the report was genuine and the findings of a constitutional authority couldn’t be dismissed.
According to her Zee News was running a campaign purely in public interest and no case of extortion could be established at any point.
It was also pertinent to note that no money was ever exchanged between the editors and the JSPL. She also maintained that the editors were trying to ascertain how far JSPL would go to stop the stories.
This had led to the repeated meetings between the editors and JSPL officials. She also argued that the arrest was a “direct violation of the freedom of speech and expression”.
The court also took objection to the last-minute addition of section 420 of the IPC (cheating), pointing out that “the element of deception is not made out” therefore this offence “cannot be said to be committed”.
The court did not agree to three days of police custody and granted two days to the investigators to finish their custodial interrogation.