The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a Public-Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking a Special Investigation Team (SIT) probe into the role of media in the AgustaWestland VVIP chopper scam case, saying it is an “attack” on media’s independence.
“We will not direct any investigation against the media unless there is a direct involvement,” a bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra said, while rejecting the PIL filed by veteran journalist Hari Jaisingh.
It seems there is a disguised attempt to curtail independence and freedom of media, the bench said, adding, “This is an attack on media. We will not entertain this.”
“We cannot curtail the right of the media in this manner. Media has been given an independent status in our democratic polity. Why should we entertain this,” said the bench, also comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and Mohan M Shantanagoudar.
The court, however, clarified that if the investigative agencies come across evidence with regard to involvement of certain individuals then they are free to probe.
However, there cannot be an investigation into the role of media as a whole, it said.
Senior advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing for Singh, alleged that some members of the media where bribed by the offshore chopper firm to influence the decision making authority in favour of the VVIP helicopter deal.
“I am seeking a direction to the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate to also investigate the role of media persons in the case,” she said.
Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the Centre, sought dimissal of the plea at the threshold saying how can there be an investigation into the role of media when there is an allegation that two persons entered into the “media management agreement”.
Considering the arguments, the bench asked, “Is this agreement registered. What is the admissibility of the agreement as evidence.”
“Freedom of media is going to be curtailed and smothered…. We will not entertain this.”
The journalist in his PIL alleged that some media persons were bribed and extended unwarranted benefits in exchange for favouring the VVIP chopper deal.
It was also alleged that certain journalist were sent to Italy along with their families by the company in question.
The apex court had on January 3 this year agreed to hear the PIL for a court-monitored probe by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate in the AgustaWestland helicopter scam case and the allegation that some media persons took bribes from foreign arms dealers in connection with the deal.
The plea had said that the agencies, CBI and ED, which have been probing the case, be also asked to submit a report to the court in a sealed cover stating the status of investigating.
It has also sought “setting up of a Commission of Inquiry under the stewardship of a retired judge of this court, or any other eminent person which this court deems fit” to probe the allegations that some media persons indulged in corrupt practices.
The PIL had alleged that “Finmeccanica (parent company of AgustaWestland) had invited a group of Indian journalists on a fully paid for trip to Italy”.
The plea had referred to the judgement of the Milan Court of Appeals and said the role of a “middleman/agent who acted on behalf of AgustaWestland emerged”.
It said an individual stationed in New Delhi and acting as the representative of AgustaWestland in India was specifically tasked with acting as a “facilitator” to ensure “smooth disbursement of funds allocated for managing key Indian officials and several influential members of Indian media”.
It had also sought a direction to the Centre to seek affidavits of “financial disclosures from the members of the media who have received funding and hospitality from foreign and domestic defence and other ancillary industries, and to make public this information and submit to the court on affidavit whether on these sums taxes have been paid or not”.
The Cabinet Committee on Security in 2010 had cleared a proposal to acquire 12 helicopters for the use of VVIPS after a long process that involved change in some parameters, evaluations and negotiations and these helicopters were to be used by the Communication Squadron of the air force. The chopper deal was later cancelled.