The Supreme Court today flat-out rejected the centre's argument that classified documents accessed by the media on the Rafale fighter jet deal can't be evidence. The court said it will examine the secret documents while considering petitions asking for a review of its order giving the government a clean chit on the deal that the opposition alleges was corrupt.
The judges today unanimously dismissed the centre's objections to considering documents leaked from the defence ministry as evidence and said they would go ahead with the hearing of review petitions, which would be decided on merit.
This means classified documents sourced by the media without authorisation can be considered by the court. It is a huge win for free press at a time questions have been raised over strong-arm tactics to suppress the media.
Citing internal notes of the defence ministry, a series of reports published by The Hindu said the ministry had objected to "parallel negotiations" for the jets by the Prime Minister's Office.
Pointing to the documents, petitioners had called for a review of the verdict. "These are sensitive documents relating to defence, but that was precisely what we said too - that because they are documents of importance, they must be treated as part of supporting documents," said former union minister Arun Shourie, one of the petitioners.
The centre had told the court that the documents filed by the petitioners are "sensitive to national security", those who conspired in photocopying the papers have committed theft and put national security in jeopardy by leaking them to the public.
Dismissing the argument, the court said it would fix a date to hear the petitions.
Petitioner Prashant Bhushan had argued that "if a document is relevant in deciding a fact, how it was obtained becomes irrelevant". Citing the US verdict on Pentagon papers leak, he said once documents are published, the government can no longer claim privilege.
N Ram, chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group, said that the documents were published in public interest, and the media group will fiercely protect its sources.
In December, the top court had dismissed petitions alleging that the government had gone for an overpriced deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets to help Anil Ambani's rookie defence firm bag an offset contract with jet-maker Dassault Aviation. There was no reason to doubt the decision-making process of the government, the court had said.
The Hindu newspaper published reports which said the deal became more expensive for India because of France's refusal to provide bank guarantees.
Disclaimer: NDTV has been sued for 10,000 crores by Anil Ambani's Reliance Group for its coverage of the Rafale deal.