The arrest of two editors of the Zee News network by Delhi crime branch sleuths has evoked sharp condemnation by lawyers who value freedom of speech and expression, rule of law, and the fundamental right to live with dignity.
The arrest at a time when the courts were slated to be closed for Gurpurab the next day indicates the motive behind the unwarranted exercise of power in a case which at best could be probed by an independent agency, said the legal pundits that DNA spoke to, recalling judgments by the Supreme Court, the high courts and the Law Commission recommendations that categorically restrict the police from using the power ruthlessly.
Expressing anguish over the manner of arrest of the two editors on a complaint by politician Naveen Jindal, an industrialist whose company’s name figured in the Rs1.86 lakh crore coal block allocation scam, a former judge of the Delhi high court, RS Sodhi, said the police had exceeded its power.
"Arrest is required only when some recovery [of goods, weapon of offence, documents etc] is to be effected," explained Sodhi.
In this case, if the investigating agency had concluded the probe, 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 that 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."
Manoj Goel, another noted lawyer who has been in the forefront of various legal battles to protect fundamental rights, minced no words in saying "the facts [of this case] seem to present a very sorry state of affairs… What is more intriguing is that instead of initiating an inquiry or investigation against the misdeeds of corruption, bribery and illegal gains and enrichment to themselves and illegal colossal losses to the public exchequer, they [the police] are acting at his [Jindal's] behest and going after the ‘whistle blower’."
After perusing the case details, Goel expressed concern over the conduct of the investigators. "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.
"First, since there are allegations and counter-allegations, there should have been investigation of both sides and the starting point should have been the allegations by Zee against Naveen," Goel said.
Secondly, the act of arrest is an act of utter haste, factually and legally not only unwarranted but also against the dicta of the Supreme Court in the Joginder Kumar case in which then chief justice MN Venkatachaliah straightened the law of arrest.
Quoting the verdict, the eminent lawyer said the power of arrest and the ‘need’ for arrest are two different things and no arrest should be effected merely because there is the power vested in police to arrest. Police may use this power only when there are justifiable reasons and there is real need of arrest.
Thirdly, the bogey of custodial investigation and interrogation is make-believe on facts here and 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 added.
Sharply reacting to the arrests, another top court lawyer, Syed Shakil Ahmed, condemned the action against the Zee Group editors and demanded an investigation into the cross allegations, cross FIRs and cross-defamation cases by an independent agency.
For Ahmed, the manner in which the police acted "smacks of malafide and mischievous motives" with the design to send out a "stunning signal" to the entire media that it could be dealt with in similar manner if it kept highlighting the slew of scams by the government, its functionaries or others close to it.
Demanding an independent probe into the coal scam, which is the core issue behind the "reprehensible" police action, Ahmed said, "The shocking arrests of journalists are nothing short of an act of intimidation of the entire media and a warning to kowtow to government dictates."
Senior lawyer Ranjit Kumar felt that if there was any truth in the line parroted by the police, an independent investigation would be imperative. In the absence of legally sustainable charges, the action against journalists of a media group would amount to muzzling the press, he said.
Correction, November 30: The report has been re-edited to fix errors pointed out by readers.