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The Meghalaya High Court on Friday found two journalists of the Shillong Times guilty of contempt of Court for having published a December 2018 article titled ‘When Judges judge for themselves’.
The Court concluded that the journalists had published false statements affecting the dignity of the Court. The Bench of Chief Justice Mohammad Yaqoob Mir and Justice SR Sen observed,
“It is correct to say that the social media has a right to publish the news and is a part of the democracy, subject to duty. The sacred duty of the media is to publish correct news, so that the actual fact reaches the people. They are not at all entitled to write as they like and slur the image of an individual or institution.
The contemnors here must remember that though, they have the right to publish news and sell their papers, but it is limited, subject to their duties. They are not supposed to file any report without understanding the background of the case or verifying the truth. Only true news should be published not the false report and if anybody violates, they are liable for defamation and contempt of Courts…
…The media cannot think for media trial or media investigation by publishing false news.“
Taking a leaf out of the Supreme Court’s book, the Court proceeded to direct the two journalists to sit in the corner of the Court as part of their penalty until the Bench rose for the day. The Court also levied a fine of Rs 2 lakh on them.
Further, the Bench directed the imprisonment of the journalists and a ban on the Shillong Times if the fine was not duly paid.
The article in question put the spotlight on a judgment passed by Justice Sen concerning retirement benefits for judges and their family members. The article appeared to have alluded that the judgment, which involved the extension of retirement benefits, may have been passed in view of the impending retirement of Justice Sen. The article stated,
“In the recent order, Justice SR Sen, who is set to retire in March, wanted several facilities for the retired chief justice and judges, their spouses and children. Besides providing medical facilities for the spouses and children, the order stressed the need for providing protocol, guest houses, domestic help, mobile/internet charge at the rate of Rs 10,000 and mobile for Rs. 80,000 for judges”.
However, the Bench hearing the contempt case stated that this judgment by Justice Sen was necessitated by an abrupt and unreasoned withdrawal by the government of retirement benefits that were earlier available to judges.
“Therefore, the question of a particular Judge on the verge of retirement taking steps for himself or his family does not arise. Hence, the report which appeared in the Shillong Times by the contemnor No. 1 is totally false and without any basis. The contemnor No. 1, Smti. Patricia Mukhim must understand that we are Judges and our job is to deliver justice for the people in general and we have our own disciplinary methods.”
After contempt proceedings were initiated against the Shillong Times journalists for having published the article, certain social media posts made by one of the journalists in December 2018, criticising the Court’s conduct, were also taken note of. Among the social media posts that attracted the Court’s scrutiny was a December 17, 2018 post titled, “Will God reserve the choicest abuses for us journalist? That’s what the earthly Gods to believe”.
In view of the same, the Court went on to query,
“We would like to ask whether the contemnor, Smti. Patricia Muhim wants to control the judiciary as per her desire and will? If it is so, she is very much wrong.“
Inter alia, the Court also emphasised,
“… we clarify that we don’t believe in judicial activism, we go according to the law, neither had we intimidated anyone by any notice.”
Further attracting the Court’s censure was an article erroneously indicating that the Supreme Court had stayed the Meghalaya High Court’s order on starting flights from the Umroi Airport. The Bench also took a critical view of an article expressing support for a statement issued by the CPI (M) party calling for the impeachment of Justice SR Sen for his controversial judgment in Amon Rana v State of Meghalaya & Ors.
It may be noted that a plea seeking the expungement of certain remarks made by Justice Sen in this judgment is currently pending before the Supreme Court.
In view of the above observations, the High Court proceeded to find the two journalists guilty of criminal contempt of Court. This, after the Court opined that the unconditional apologies tendered by the journalists were merely a calculated strategy to avoid punishment for their acts of contempt.
“The contemnors all along have contested the matter and finally realizing that the contest is not in their better interest have tendered unconditional apology at the last moment. The contemnors being responsible persons should not have indulged in the acts falling within the purview of derogation to the administration of justice.“
Thus, the Court directed the women journalists to pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh each. It was emphasized that default of payment would invite a six-month prison sentence, and a ban on the Shillong Times.
Read the judgment: