Press Freedom, Defamation / Reputation
Palin v. The New York Times
On Appeal Contracts Expression
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On March 08, 2019, the divisional bench of the High Court of Shillong, in the northeastern part of India, found the editor and publisher of the Shillong Times guilty of contempt of court and fined them INR 2,00,000/- (approx. 2700 USD) each in relation to a news report published under the headline “When Judges judge for themselves”. The article suggested that Justice S.R. Sen, who was set to retire in March, had issued an order directing the government to provide medical treatment and make other provisions for retired judges, their spouses and children. The Court emphasized that the press and social media had a right to publish the news but they had a “sacred duty” to publish correct news. It stated that anyone publishing a false report would be liable for defamation and contempt of court. One week after the ruling, the Supreme Court stayed the judgment and issued notice to the High Court Registrar on the appeal filed by the editor and publisher of the newspaper.
This contempt proceeding was initiated against Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times and Shobha Chaudhuri, the publisher of the Shillong Times (“the respondents”) on the basis of reports published in the “Shillong Times” dated December 06, 2018 and December 10, 2018 under the caption “When Judges judge for themselves”. The article discussed the order of Justice S.R. Sen to provide “facilities” or benefits for retired judges and their families. The article claimed that Justice S.R. Sen, who was set to retire in March, wanted several benefits for the retired chief justice and judges, their spouses and children. The article further stated that in addition to providing medical treatment for the spouses and children, the order stressed the need for providing protocol, guest houses, domestic help, mobile/internet charges at the rate of Rs 10,000 and mobile for Rs. 80,000 for the judges. As a result, a contempt case was filed against the respondents. Four senior counsel Mr. S. Dey, Mr. N. Syngkon, Mr. K. Ch. Gautam and Mr. C.H. Mawlong volunteered to stand as amicus curiae.
The case was presided over by the Chief Justice of the High Court of Shillong, Mohammad Yaqoob Mir, and Justice S.R. Sen. The central issue for consideration was whether the articles published in the Shillong Times amounted to contempt of court.
Speaking in response to the contemnors’ affidavit, Mr. Gautam (Amicus Curiae for Appellant) contended that the impugned newspaper report was not based on facts and had been published without any research and only to scandalize the order of the Court. He further argued that the language of the report was scornful, portrayed the Justice S.R. Sen and the High Court in a poor light and conveyed to the general public that the said order had been passed solely for the benefit of Justice S.R. Sen who was due to retire soon [p. 4]. The amicus further submitted that the newspaper report in question did not come within the definition of fair reporting and was malicious and contemptuous. He then referred to Patricia Mukhim’s social media account to show that she had “gone to the extent of mocking the judicial system of this country” [p. 9].
Referencing the affidavits and rejoinders filed in the case as well as the newspaper reports, the Court observed that the contemnors were trying to challenge the judicial system which was not at all acceptable. The Court went on to state that, “The sacred duty of the media is to publish correct news, so that the actual facts reach the public. The media 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 although, they have the right to publish news and sell their papers, that right 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 false reports and if anybody violates this, they are liable for defamation and contempt of court” [p. 6].
The Court referred to Bal Kishan Giri v. State of Uttar Pradesh [(2014) 7 SCC 280], in Re, Arundhati Roy [AIR 2002 SC 1375], Daroga Singh v. B.K. Pandey, [AIR 2004 SC 2579] and in Re Lalit Kalita & Ors [2008 (1) GLT 800] to underline that citizens should not take the liberty of scandalizing the authority of the institution of the judiciary” [p. 10]. The judges also referred to the Norms of Journalistic Conduct as per the Press Council of India under the caption of Principles and Ethics at Clause of 1 (accuracy and fairness), 2 (pre-publication verification), 3 (caution against defamatory writings), 12(a) (caution in criticizing judicial acts), 12 (b) (reporting news pertaining to court proceedings), 13 (corrections), 16 (editor’s discretion) and 21 (headings not to be sensational or provocative) [p. 11].
The judge concluded that the matter fell within the purview of section 15 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 and referred to Section 2(c) of the Act which defines the meaning of criminal contempt as the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which (i) scandalizes or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or (ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or (iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner” [p. 8].
In all these circumstances, the Court imposed a fine of Rs. 2,00,000/- (approx. 2700 USD) each on the two respondents.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Court has contracted the freedom of expression by imposing a fine of INR 2,00,000/- (approx. 2700 USD) each on the editor and publisher of the Shillong Times and holding them liable of the contempt of Court. However, one week after the judgment the Supreme Court stayed the judgment and issued notice to the High Court Registrar on the appeal filed by the editor and publisher.
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