oppn parties The Shillong Times Case: Contempt Of Court Or Highhandedness?

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The Shillong Times Case: Contempt Of Court Or Highhandedness?

By Sunil Garodia

About the Author

Sunil Garodia Editor-in-Chief of indiacommentary.com. Current Affairs analyst and political commentator. Writes for a number of publications.
Should a publication comment on issues involving perks being paid to retired judges? The Mehgalaya High Court thinks it should not. It has hauled up Patricia Mukhim, the editor of Shillong Times and the publisher of the paper for contempt of court, ordered them to sit in a corner of the court till the court rose for the day and imposed a fine of Rs 2 lakh each, failing which they could face arrest. The court also issued a veiled warning for closing down the newspaper.

The issue at hand was the unilateral decision of the Meghalaya government to withdraw certain perks given to retired judges without consulting the administrative side of the high court. The matter was not resolved for two months despite discussions between the government and the administrative wing of the court. Then the High Court took suo motu cognizance and issued some directions. Shillong Times published the news along with a commentary on the subject which was critical of the fact that the judges were judging themselves. The court thought it was a contemptuous remark.

But is it really so? Doesn’t a publication have the right to point out to its readers that the judges were passing orders that would benefit their own despite the elected government having withdrawn the facilities? It did not indulge in character assassination or implied any wrongdoing on part of the judges. It just questioned the propriety of judges passing orders that would benefit their retired co-workers, and down the line them too when they retired. The Supreme Court had, in the case of BCCI, clearly said that conflict of interest is a huge issue and should be avoided. Didn’t conflict apply in this case?

The Meghalaya High Court chose to declare that the publication was always working against judges and the judicial system. It also made sweeping remarks that the newspaper attacked institutions and individuals and published propaganda calling for bandhs. In short, it tried to portray Shillong Times as an insidious pamphlet instead of a venerable newspaper that it is. It was highhandedness on its part. The Supreme Court has already stayed the order. The high court should now be lenient and reconsider and withdraw the order. While it is no one’s case that people should be allowed to criticize the judiciary without reason or publish self-serving commentaries against court orders, there is also a case not to stifle free speech and freedom of press by using the contempt law indiscriminately. A balance needs to be struck.