HC rejects criminal contempt plea against Deccan Herald

The Karnataka High Court on Thursday dismissed a couple of contempt of court petitions filed against Deccan Herald by the son and wife of a judge of the same court.

The petitions by Phaniraj Kashyap and K Vijaya, son and wife respectively of High Court judge Justice K Sreedhar Rao, were filed in the years 2009 and 2010 after this daily published a news report about Bangalore University authorities bending rules and procedures to favour Phaniraj in the revaluation of a law examination paper he had appeared for.

Rejecting the two petitions, the Division Bench, comprising justices N Kumar and Arali Nagaraj, declared that Deccan Herald’s news report, published on its front page on May 9, 2009 under the headline “Bangalore varsity dishes out special favour to VIP son”, did not constitute contempt of court and held that “freedom of expression of the fourth estate cannot be undermined”.

In another pointed observation to the judiciary at large, the Bench observed that the allegation that the student was defamed due to the newspaper reports cannot be construed as contempt. The court has observed that the power of contempt is to be exercised to protect public interest and to protect the court as an institution.  It also held, quoting an earlier judgment of the Supreme Court, that the jurisdiction of contempt must be used sparingly and economically.   

The news report had said: “It helps to bend the rules if you are a high court judge’s son. Even as over 3,000 LLB students await their revaluation results, Bangalore University has hurriedly revaluated only the answer script of a VIP son and dispatched his revised marks card to his college under dubious circumstances”.

The Bench observed that trivial issues of this nature will be blown out of proportion if not controlled and ultimately it will not be within the control of the judges. In this context, the Bench further observed that there was nothing in the article calculated to demean or lower the authority of the court.

Pointing out that mere reference of a high court judge in the news report cannot be construed as an attack on a judge, the Bench went on to dwell on two core issues of journalism: freedom of press and legitimate investigative reporting, and the ethics and principles that constitute the soul of journalism.

Commending Deccan Herald, the Bench said the stories were in public interest and that such investigative reporting is necessary for proper functioning of democracy.  Faced with the contempt petitions in which the petitioners claimed that the then Bangalore University vice-chancellor had exercised discretionary powers to get Phaniraj’s out-of-turn answer script revaluation, Deccan Herald applied for university documents pertaining to the Phaniraj case under the Right to Information Act.

The documents threw up information which was in consonance with what the paper had published and nullified the petitioner’s contention regarding the vice-chancellor’s exercise of discretionary authority. The document says: “The Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University has not exercised any power under section 15 of the KSU Act-2000 in the Revaluation of Phaniraj Kashyap’s CPC (Civil Procedure Code) Answer Script”.

The documents were placed before the court for consideration.   The Bench viewed that Deccan Herald’s news report pointed to the instances of the university violating laid down norms. It observed that the newspaper reports had nothing to do with the judiciary.

It did not deal directly with the judiciary but about the preferential treatment by the university to the son of a high court judge. The Bench took note of the fact that while the revaluation of Phaniraj’s answer script was done on May 5, 2009, the coordinator (for revaluation) was appointed by the university authorities on May 14 pursuant to the order of the vice-chancellor a day before.

While hearing the matter, the counsel for the petitioners read out some parts of the news report, pointing out that words like “high court” and “vice-chancellor acting under pressure” invited contempt of court.

To this, the court observed: “Only your argument is linking the High Court judge. We have not understood. (The) public has not understood. Nobody (has) said it was done by the High Court judge. Only you are saying it”. Appearing for Deccan Herald, senior counsel Nagananda, argued that the “press is an important organ of democracy. It should be allowed to function freely. It is the basic structure of democracy.”

Seeking dismissal of the petition, he said that continuing with the contempt proceedings will adversely affect freedom of press. Nagananda submitted that the news report clearly conveyed maladies of Bangalore University and that the reporter’s objective was to make the institution responsible.

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