New Delhi: The Supreme Court Friday ruled that the communication restrictions imposed by the central government in Jammu and Kashmir need to be reviewed forthwith, and that any suspension of internet services for an indefinite period would be subjected to judicial scrutiny.
A bench comprising Justices N.V. Ramana, R. Subhash Reddy and B.R. Gavai also laid down certain principles that need to be followed by the authorities in case such restrictions are imposed in the country in the future.
For instance, the court asserted that the government cannot suspend internet for an indefinite period and that all such orders will have to be published.
The judgment comes as Kashmir enters its fifth month of communication lockdown after the Narendra Modi government scrapped Article 370, which granted special status to the erstwhile state, on 5 August and announced its bifurcation into two Union territories.
Here are some key extracts from the Supreme Court verdict:
Liberty or security?
Liberty and security have always been at loggerheads. The question before us, simply put, is what do we need more, liberty or security? Although the choice is seemingly challenging, we need to clear ourselves from the platitude of rhetoric and provide a meaningful answer so that every citizen has adequate security and sufficient liberty. The pendulum of preference should not swing in either extreme direction so that one preference compromises the other. It is not our forte to answer whether it is better to be free than secure or be secure rather than free. However, we are here only to ensure that citizens are provided all the rights and liberty to the highest extent in a given situation while ensuring security at the same time.
State can apply only ‘least restrictive measures’
In view of the aforesaid discussion, we may summarize the requirements of the doctrine of proportionality which must be followed by the authorities before passing any order intending on restricting fundamental rights of individuals. In the first stage itself, the possible goal of such a measure intended at imposing restrictions must be determined. It ought to be noted that such goal must be legitimate. However, before settling on the aforesaid measure, the authorities must assess the existence of any alternative mechanism in furtherance of the aforesaid goal. The appropriateness of such a measure depends on its implication upon the fundamental rights and the necessity of such measure. It is undeniable from the aforesaid holding that only the least restrictive measure can be resorted to by the State, taking into consideration the facts and circumstances. Lastly, since the order has serious implications on the fundamental rights of the affected parties, the same should be supported by sufficient material and should be amenable to judicial review.
Internet restrictions must be ‘temporary’
One of the gaps which must be highlighted relates to the usage of the word “temporary” in the title of the Suspension Rules. Despite the above, there is no indication of the maximum duration for which a suspension order can be in operation. Keeping in mind the requirements of proportionality expounded in the earlier section of the judgment, we are of the opinion that an order suspending the aforesaid services indefinitely is impermissible. In this context, it is necessary to lay down some procedural safeguard till the aforesaid deficiency is cured by the legislature to ensure that the exercise of power under the Suspension Rules is not disproportionate. We therefore direct that the Review Committee constituted under Rule 2(5) of the Suspension Rules must conduct a periodic review within seven working days of the previous review, in terms of the requirements under Rule 2(6). The Review Committee must therefore not only look into the question of whether the restrictions are still in compliance with the requirements of Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, but must also look into the question of whether the orders are still proportionate, keeping in mind the constitutional consequences of the same. We clarify that looking to the fact that the restrictions contemplated under the Suspension Rules are temporary in nature, the same must not be allowed to extend beyond that time period which is necessary.
SC direction for authorities
Although the restrictions have been allegedly removed on 27.09.2019, thereby rendering the present exercise into a virtually academic one, we cannot ignore noncompliance of law by the State. As learned senior counsel Mr. Kapil Sibal submitted, this case is not just about the past or what has happened in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir, but also about the future, where this Court has to caution the Government. Hence, we direct that the authorities must follow the principles laid down by this Court and uphold the rule of law.
Summary of legal position on Section 144
i.The power under Section 144, Cr.P.C., being remedial as well as preventive, is exercisable not only where there exists present danger, but also when there is an apprehension of danger. However, the danger contemplated should be in the nature of an “emergency” and for the purpose of preventing obstruction and annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed.
ii.The power under Section 144, Cr.P.C cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights.
iii.An order passed under Section 144, Cr.P.C. should state the material facts to enable judicial review of the same. The power should be exercised in a bona fide and reasonable manner, and the same should be passed by relying on the material facts, indicative of application of mind. This will enable judicial scrutiny of the aforesaid order.
iv.While exercising the power under Section 144, Cr.P.C. the Magistrate is duty bound to balance the rights and restrictions based on the principles of proportionality and thereafter apply the least intrusive measure.
v.Repetitive orders under Section 144, Cr.P.C. would be an abuse of power.
On chilling effect on the press
In this context, one possible test of chilling effect is comparative harm. In this frame work, the Court is required to see whether the impugned restrictions, due to their broad based nature, have had a restrictive effect on similarly placed individuals during the period. It is the contention of the Petitioner that she was not able to publish her newspaper from 06082019 to 11102019. However, no evidence was put forth to establish that such other individuals were also restricted in publishing newspapers in the area. Without such evidence having been placed on record, it would be impossible to distinguish a legitimate claim of chilling effect from a mere emotive argument for a self serving purpose. On the other hand, the learned Solicitor General has submitted that there were other newspapers which were running during the aforesaid time period. In view of these facts, and considering that the aforesaid Petitioner has now resumed publication, we do not deem it fit to indulge more in the issue than to state that responsible Governments are required to respect the freedom of the press at all times. Journalists are to be accommodated in reporting and there is no justification for allowing a sword of Damocles to hang over the press indefinitely.
The court’s final conclusions:
a. The Respondent State/competent authorities are directed to publish all orders in force and any future orders under Section 144, Cr.P.C and for suspension of telecom services, including internet, to enable the affected persons to challenge it before the High Court or appropriate forum.
b. We declare that the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation over the medium of internet enjoys constitutional protection under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 19(1)(g). The restriction upon such fundamental rights should be in consonance with the mandate under Article 19 (2) and (6) of the Constitution, inclusive of the test of proportionality.
c. An order suspending internet services indefinitely is impermissible under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules, 2017. Suspension can be utilized for temporary duration only.
d. Any order suspending internet issued under the Suspension Rules, must adhere to the principle of proportionality and must not extend beyond necessary duration.
e. Any order suspending internet under the Suspension Rules is subject to judicial review based on the parameters set out herein.
f. The existing Suspension Rules neither provide for a periodic review nor a time limitation for an order issued under the Suspension Rules. Till this gap is filled, we direct that the Review Committee constituted under Rule 2(5) of the Suspension Rules must conduct a periodic review within seven working days of the previous review, in terms of the requirements under Rule 2(6).
g. We direct the respondent State/competent authorities to review all orders suspending internet services forthwith.
h. Orders not in accordance with the law laid down above, must be revoked. Further, in future, if there is a necessity to pass fresh orders, the law laid down herein must be followed.
i. In any case, the State/concerned authorities are directed to consider forthwith allowing government websites, localized/limited ebanking facilities, hospitals services and other essential services, in those regions, wherein the internet services are not likely to be restored immediately.
j. The power under Section 144, Cr.P.C., being remedial as well as preventive, is exercisable not only where there exists present danger, but also when there is an apprehension of danger. However, the danger contemplated should be in the nature of an “emergency” and for the purpose of preventing obstruction and annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed.
k. The power under Section 144, Cr.P.C cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights.
l. An order passed under Section 144, Cr.P.C. should state the material facts to enable judicial review of the same. The power should be exercised in a bona fide and reasonable manner, and the same should be passed by relying on the material facts, indicative of application of mind. This will enable judicial scrutiny of the aforesaid order.
m. While exercising the power under Section 144, Cr.P.C., the Magistrate is duty bound to balance the rights and restrictions based on the principles of proportionality and thereafter, apply the least intrusive measure.
n. Repetitive orders under Section 144, Cr.P.C. would be an abuse of power.
o. The Respondent State/competent authorities are directed to review forthwith the need for continuance of any existing orders passed under Section 144, Cr.P.C in accordance with law laid down above.
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