On March 8, the High Court of Meghalaya found guilty of contempt Patricia Mukhim and Shobha Chaudhuri, editor and publisher, respectively, of the venerable Shillong Times, which has been in print from before Independence. The bench found two stories published in the newspaper contemptuous, headlined “High Court pursues retirement benefits to judges, family” and “When judges judge themselves”. The order found the latter headline itself contemptuous, though it is only a variant of the common saying, “Physician, heal thyself,” which does not upset the medical profession. In fact, similar sentiments are expressed in the national press every time parliamentarians decide to award themselves a wee bit more.
The sentence combined schoolroom punishment with a serious threat to the press: Under Article 215 of the Constitution, the editor and publisher were ordered to “sit in the corner” until the court rose for the day, and are to pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh each, failing which they would be imprisoned for six months and “the paper so called ‘Shillong Times’ will automatically come to an end (banned).” This 37-page order, which relies upon a raft of documents, including the Press Council of India’s norms of journalistic conduct and Lord Dening’s (sic) cogitations on relations between the press and the law, suggests that the very foundation of the judiciary had been shaken. But the stories that the Shillong Times published were about the court’s deliberations over the perks to be awarded to retired judges, and their extension to their families.
This order was passed despite the offer of an unconditional apology by the defendants. It includes a section on the quality of apologies, and the metrics of their sincerity. But the quality of mercy appears to be strained, and a lack of proportion is all too evident. The sentence is out of scale with the newspaper reports which apparently caused offence, which certainly did not amount to a frontal attack on the majesty of the law. On the other hand, the threat to terminate one of the oldest newspapers in the Northeast constitutes an attack on the press. The order is regrettable, since a court cannot possibly contemplate exerting a chilling effect on the press in a country where the judiciary has a distinguished record of expanding the freedom of expression, and protecting it. The Meghalaya High Court order is unfortunate, needs to be reconsidered and reviewed.
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