Hearing plea against Mumbai Police's 'gag order', high court asks a question

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The Bombay high court on Tuesday sought to know if the Mumbai Police intended to extend the order it issued under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) that made criticising the government and its functioning a punishable offence.

The court was hearing a petition filed by Navi Mumbai resident and journalist Rajeev Mishra, challenging the May 23 order on the ground that it was violative of the freedom of speech and expression.

Prohibitory orders under Section 144 are being issued right from the beginning of the nationwide lockdown in view of the Covid-19 pandemic and are being renewed from time to time. Mishra has complained that the order not only prohibited dissemination of fake news, incorrect information and other objectionable content on various social media platforms, but also specifically stated that legal action will be taken against those criticising the state and its functioning in the times of Covid-19.

Amongst other directives, the order prohibits any person from inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions taken in order to prevent spread of the disease, thereby causing danger to human health or safety or a disturbance to the public tranquility, the petition said. It specifically stated that any person contravening the order will be prosecuted under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), it added.

According to Mishra’s counsel, this “gag” on public speaking against the state government’s functioning was completely in breach of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution and therefore liable to be struck down.

However, when the petition came up for hearing on Tuesday, assistant public prosecutor Madhavi Mhatre pointed out that the order under challenge has expired on June 8, and the petition had become infructuous.

The bench of justice Ujjal Bhutan and justice Riyaz Chagla sought to know if the police authorities intended to extend the gag by extending the order dated May 23 or by issuing similar order. The bench adjourned the petition till June 23 after the prosecutor sought time to answer the query.

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