The Meghalaya High Court’s order finding the Editor and Publisher of Shillong Times guilty of contempt, and asking them to “sit in a corner” till the rising of the court and imposing a fine of Rs. 2 lakh each, is a heavy-handed response to comments in the newspaper on the court’s earlier orders. What makes the order even more unfortunate is the explicit threat to ban the newspaper and jail them if they fail to pay the fine. While courts are indeed empowered to decide whether a publication scandalised or tended to scandalise the judiciary or interfered with the administration of justice, there is no legal provision for an outright ban on it. The origin of these contempt proceedings appears to be the State government’s unilateral decision to withdraw certain facilities to retired judges without consulting the court administration. After the matter was not resolved on the administrative side for two months, the court initiated suo motu proceedings and issued some directions. It was because of a news item, accompanied by a commentary on the court’s directions, that the contemnors had incurred the court’s displeasure.
The offending comments appeared to imply that the directions regarding extending facilities, including protocol services and domestic help, and reimbursing communication bills up to Rs. 10,000 a month and a mobile phone worth Rs. 80,000, to retired judges amounted to “judges judging for themselves”. It is a moot question whether the court ought to have taken umbrage at this remark or ignored it. It would serve the cause of preserving the dignity of the higher judiciary if overzealous comments made by activists or journalists were ignored. In 1999, the Supreme Court had brushed aside some adverse remarks by activists by saying, “the court’s shoulders are broad enough to shrug off their comments.” However, in the case of Patricia Mukhim, the Editor of Shillong Times , the court has made sweeping remarks that the newspaper had always attacked individuals and institutions, had published propaganda calling for bandhs and “was always working against judges and the judicial system”. The defence argued the court should frame specific charges before convicting them for contempt. However, the matter was tried summarily. While it is open to the court to try a case of contempt in a summary manner, the use of personalised views of the publication’s past record to hand down the verdict puts a question mark over the decision-making process. While there may be a need to curb tendentious criticism of the judiciary and self-serving comments on ongoing proceedings in mainstream and social media, there is a compelling case to use the contempt law sparingly, and avoid the impression that it is being used to stifle free speech or dissent. Lenience, not anger, ought to be the primary response of a detached judiciary.