The Meghalaya High Court’s order imposing severe penalties on Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim and publisher Shoba Chaudhuri for contempt of court is wrong and unjustifiable. Last week, both of them were ordered to sit in a corner of the court room till the rising of the court and to pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh each. They were told that they would have to undergo six months’ imprisonment if they failed to pay the fine, and the newspaper would be banned. The contempt proceedings were initiated on the basis of two reports published in the newspaper in December under the headings “High Court pursues retirement benefits to judges, family’’ and “When judges judge for themselves’’. The judgement also took note of some comments made by Mukhim on social media. It said that she had lowered the majesty of the court and mocked the country’s judicial system.
The articles published in the newspaper were about a court order that sought better facilities for retired judges and their families. The order, issued by Justice SR Sen, directed the government to provide a number of benefits for retired chief justices, judges and their families. These included medical facilities for spouses and children, protocol, guest houses, domestic help, mobile and internet recharge at the rate of Rs 10,000 and mobiles for Rs 80,000 for judges. It was a factual report, but the court decided that it constituted contempt of court. Newspapers have the right and responsibility to carry such reports and even criticise orders. Such reports cannot be construed as lowering the dignity of the judiciary. It is such orders and the contempt action that do not reflect well on the judiciary. The judge who issued the order was also part of the two-judge bench which found the editor and the publisher guilty.
For a statement to constitute contempt, it must be false and should have the effect of impeding the course of justice. The court also dismissed as technical the argument that proper procedure had not been followed in the case, no charge had been framed, no evidence was taken and no right of reply granted. The court’s action is a challenge to the freedom of the press. The Editors’ Guild had expressed concern over the issue of notice to Patricia Mukhim. Contempt of court provisions are being discarded or made less stringent in many countries. Some courts do not use or enforce them. In India, it is sometimes used to curb freedom or to ensure that there is no criticism of the courts or judges. It leads to bizarre and unfortunate decisions, as in the Meghalaya case.