Himachal Pradesh High court on Wednesday quashed an FIR registered against an electronic media journalist by State Government and police. The journo had exposed the flawed e-pass software to monitor compliance of Covid as petitioner posing himself as Bollywood Star Amitabh Bachchan and former President of US Donald Trump succeeded in making the E-pass and vehicle entry pass to enter in Himachal Pradesh during the lockdown.
In a 13 page order passed on a petition byAman Kumar Bhardwaj, Single Judge bench of justice Vivek Singh Thakur quashesd FIR registered against the Petitioner at Police Station East, Shimla under Sections 419, 468, 471 of “IPC”, Sec 66(D) of IT Act and Sec 54 of DM Act.
The Petitioner who is journalist by profession remained associated with various media houses and has been working with Zee Media House since January, 2021 and was posted in Shimla.
During Covid-19 Pandemic, on April 25, 2021, Secretary (Health) of Himachal issued an order invoking that all inter-state movement into the State to be monitored through registration in COVID e-pass software.
Court order said that petitioner, being a responsible Journalist and acting in larger interest of public, carried out an investigation about the claims of administration qua verification of registration forms of persons entering Himachal Pradesh. During this investigation, petitioner noticed that registration as well as generation of e-pass were being done in mechanical manner without any verification by the authorities. He obtained requisite permission from his Bureau Chief to proceed further in order to highlight the discrepancy in the entire process and for which he conducted a reality check qua veracity of functioning of the web portal. Petitioner filled two online registration forms on the portal for issuance of two e-passes for entering the State without assigning any valid reason. The registration so made was in the names of two renowned personalities, i.e. Amitabh Bachchan and Donald Trump. Names of renowned personalities were used with hope that names so mentioned would definitely be taken note of by the authorities during the process of verification.The petitioner also submitted identity proof as he deliberately uploaded his own valid details, i.e. Adhaar Card number and telephone number, for above mentioned registrations and also mentioned two random vehicle numbers alongwith other details. E-passes so applied in the names of Amitabh Bachachan and Donald Trump by the petitioner were generated which substantiated the fact that passes were being issued without, any verification of accompanying documents, in a mechanical
Court said that entire exercise was undertaken by the Petitioner with a bonafide intention to unearth the truth and loopholes in the system behind the entire process of registration, for the larger public interest. The petitioner said that generation of aforesaid two e-passes was brought by him to the notice of certain senior authorities of the State including the Director General of Police Himachal Pradesh and a Cabinet Minister prior to the story being televised on his news channel, but, finding no response, petitioner broadcasted the story on his News Channel.
However, the State, Health Authority and Police after broadcasting of the news slapped FIR against the petitioner under Section 419, 468, 471 IPC, 66(D) of the Information Technology Act and Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act.
Thereafter, petitioner was interrogated during investigation and his statements were recorded. Feeling aggrieved by the aforesaid registration of FIR, petitioner has approached this Court.
In response to the petition state admitted that the petitioner applied for e-passes to enter the State of Himachal Pradesh by faking his identity and claiming to be a person which he was not and causing false propaganda as if everybody and anybody can enter the State on fake identity without being checked, whereas it was
known to all including the petitioner that Police barriers were made operational at various places in the State including entry points of the State to check the identity of individuals entering the State and to pass on the information to the concerned authorities to ensure that the individual is dealt with as per protocols. Also it was stated, that the present petition is an attempt to thwart the investigation. Respondent State opposed the contention of quashing FIR and seeking to continue the investigation accepted that petitioner
impersonated himself as ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ and ‘Donald Trump’ and used fake registration numbers of vehicles by mentioning his own mobile
number. State also said that Petitioner used his Aadhaar Card as identity proof for generating fake and forged documents and, thus petitioner is liable to be tried and punished for the offences mentioned in the FIR.
The court after hearing the counsel for both parties and have also gone through the record held that in present case, petitioner did not commit any act with intention to defraud, but for reality check and verifying the working of. system of online registration and generation of e-passes, regarding which it was claimed by State that e-passes would be generated after proper verification of documents uploaded with the online request.
Court also held that in the present case, petitioner had demonstrated not only possibility of registration of request for generation of e-pass by filling up misleading details but also generation of expats on the basis of such faulty request.
All this was done by petitioner, with permission of his Bureau Chief, in order to verify and check the claim of the State authorities and working of the system and he demonstrated it by doing it practically. The singlb Bench said that broadcasting news about it, that too after bringing it in notice of authorities, cannot be said a false alarm or warning, rather reporting and news was true and genuine.
Act of the petitioner based on the fact revealed to him by undertaking a practical exercise and after informing about it to the senior authorities, Director General of Police, Cabinet Minister and other responsible persons in the Government, would not amount to circulation of a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic.
Petitioner had tried to raise alarm and warning to the authorities so as to improve the system to avoid disaster or to increase severity or magnitude of spread of Covid-19 Pandemic by restricting entry of unwanted persons in the State in terms of restrictions imposed by the State Government to take appropriate steps to improve in order to provide foolproof or flawless system.
The Petitioner was having doubt about proper working of verification system of State at the time of registration of online request for e-pass and generation of e-passes. He was not having any other via-media to check and verify the system except submitting a misleading request. It is evident that in entire episode intention of petitioner was neither dishonest nor fraudulent as immediately after generation of e-
passes, which otherwise could not have been used by any person, petitioner brought it to the notice of concerned authorities and persons.
Court said that there was no sufficient material for lodging FIR against the petitioner of offences under Sec. 419, 468 and 471 of IPC, Sec 66(D) of IT ourt of H.P and Sec 54 of Disaster Management Act, 2005 for absence of essential ingredients required for attracting these Sections.
The Court allowing the petition said it is apparent that allegations made in complaint or FIR even if they are taken at their face value and accepted in entirety do not, prima facie, constitute any offence or make out a case against the accused.
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