The editor and publisher of The Shillong Times, a well-regarded newspaper from Meghalaya established two years before India became independent, have been held guilty of contempt of court in an extraordinary case that has implications for freedom of expression enjoyed by mainstream and social media voices across the country.
The Meghalaya High Court rejected the “unconditional apology” tendered by Patricia Mukhim, the Editor, and Shobhana Chaudhuri, the publisher, on February 1. They were ordered to “sit in a corner” till the court adjourned for the day, and to pay Rs 2 lakh within one week, failing which they could be imprisoned for six months and the paper “banned”.
The case pertains to two stories published by the paper on December 6 and December 10, 2018, both of which are still available on the paper’s website and in its e-paper format.
The first report (above), headlined “High Court pursues retirement benefits to judges, family“, appears to have been a factual rendition of court proceedings in a single-judge bench headed Justice S.R. Sen.
The second report (below), headlined “When judges judge for themselves” is more of an analysis, providing context and background, but crucially, it appeared three days before the court was to hear the matter once again.
It is the second report that seems to have provided the basis for the contempt case to be filed. The court order only refers to the second story’s headline and not the first, seemingly treating both as one and the same.
One of the four counsels the court used as Amicus Curiae said the second report was in bad taste, showing the court in poor light, “very aptly highlighted in colour and the language is scornful”.
The notice to the editor and publisher read, inter alia:
“Shocking that the publisher and editor of said newspaper without knowing the law or background of the case is making comments which is definitely derogatory to a judge who is handling the case as well as the entire judges’ community…. Media is not to dictate to the court what the court should do.”
The Shillong Times case is extraordinary for several reasons.
It took less than three months for the case to be filed and for judgement to be reached, the order being issued on the day of retirement of one of the two judges on the bench, Justice S.R. Sen.
Justice Sen himself sat in judgement on whether or not the newspaper articles and Facebook posts amounted to contempt. Among the questions asked in open court were the Editor’s qualifications “to write about judges”.
Justice Sen had hit the headlines in December 2018 by writing in an order that “nobody should try to make India another Islamic country, otherwise it will be a doomsday for India and the world”. He issued a clarification days later stating that his judgment was “misinterpreted”, and that it was not “politically motivated”.
Besides the material printed by the newspaper, the court relies on three online posts made by The Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim on Facebook on December 14, 17 and 18, 2018.
“Patricia Mukhim took the help of social media and even gone to the extent of mocking the judicial system of this country…. insulting the learned members of the Bar.”
The judgement says the newspaper can be “banned” if the editor and publisher fail to pay the fine in a week and are imprisoned. Banning a newspaper is an executive preserve.
This is the second major case from India’s northeast in which a journalist’s social media posts have become the target of attention.
Last November, Kishorchandra Wanghkem, a cable news journalist in Manipur, was charged under the National Security Act, and arrested and jailed for a year for criticising the state’s chief minister and the prime minister in Facebook videos.
Screenshots: courtesy The Indian Express and The Shillong Times
Also read: Amnesty bats for Kishorchandra Wangkhem