HP HC quashes FIR against scribe for getting E-pass posing as Big B, Trump

Shimla, July 14 (FN Agency) The Himachal Pradesh High Court on Wednesday quashed an FIR registered against a journalist by the Himachal Pradesh government and state police, alleging that he succeeded in getting an E-pass and vehicle entry pass to enter Himachal Pradesh during lockdown, posing as Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and former US President Donald Trump. The Single-Judge Bench of Justice Vivek Singh Thakur quashed the FIR registered against petitioner Aman Kumar Bhardwaj at Police Station East, Shimla under Sections 419, 468, 471 of IPC; Section 66 (D) of the IT Act and Section 54 of the DM Act. Bhardwaj, a journalist by profession, has remained associated with various media houses since 2017 and has been working with Zee Media House since January, 2021. He is currently posted in Shimla. During the Covid-19 pandemic, on April 25, 2021, the Secretary (Health) of HP issued an order invoking that all inter-state movement into the state shall be monitored through registration in Covid-19 e-pass software. The 13-page order by Justice Thakur said that the 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 investigation, the 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. The 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, Amitabh Bachchan and Donald Trump. The names of renowned personalities were used with hope that they 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, including his Adhaar Card number and telephone number for registration and also mentioned two random vehicle numbers, along with other details. The 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 manner. The Court said the entire exercise was undertaken by the petitioner with a bona fide intention to unearth the truth and loopholes in the system behind the entire process of registration, in the larger public interest.

The generation of two e-passes was brought 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 by the petitioner on his news channel. However, finding no response, the petitioner broadcast the story on Zee News. 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, the petitioner was interrogated during investigation and his statements were recorded. Justice Thakur observed that the 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 the state that e-passes would be generated after proper verification of documents uploaded with the online request. The Court further held that in the present case, the petitioner had demonstrated not only possibility of registration of request for generation of e-pass by filling up misleading details, but also generation of e-pass on the basis of such faulty request. The Bench said that broadcasting news about it, that too after bringing it to the notice of authorities, cannot be said a false alarm or warning, rather reporting and news was true and genuine.