What constitutes acceptable media reporting of judgments? According to Meghalaya High Court Justice SR Sen, very little would come under that category. In a contempt notice issued to The Shillong Times, Sen took issue with an article in the newspaper that was simply reporting on an order he had issued regarding facilities to be provided to retired judges. “It is really shocking that the publisher and editor of the said newspaper without knowing the law or background of the case are making comments which are definitely derogatory to a judge who is handling the case as well as the entire fraternity of the judges,” the notice said. “When the matter is pending before the court, media has no business to comment on it.”
The article, entitled “When judges judge for themselves”, was not even an opinion piece. Instead, it was a straight report, providing readers with the information that Justice Sen’s order had called for facilities like “providing protocol, guest houses, domestic help, mobile/internet charge at the rate of Rs 10,000 and mobile for Rs 80,000 for judges” after they retire. The article also referenced a previous case from the same High Court, when two judges had ordered Z and Y category security for retired judges soon before they themselves were to retire, prompting a petition from a resident of Shillong asking whether such an order was appropriate. Eventually the Supreme Court ordered that only normal security would be provided to retired judges.
Sen’s contempt notice against the newspaper and its publisher in this case doesn’t just complain about the article itself but even its presentation. “I cannot understand what was so important that it was highlighted in pink colour.” And he insists, “media not to dictate the Court: What the Court should and should not do.” In sum, this is a High Court judge saying that an order of the court should not be reported on because the matter is pending, that the colour of the text somehow aggravates this case of alleged conempt and that, even though the article itself makes no comments about what the court should do, media has no business publishing pieces like this.
All of this flies in the face a fundamental right to free speech, even in a country that still has a colonial law aimed at preventing the media from “scandalising the court” decades after the United Kingdom struck its own version down. Journalists in India who cover law are usually told that they are free to criticise the judgment, without imputing motives to the judges. It is generally acknowledged, even in previous cases of contempt, that judges ought to invite informed discussion and criticism of judgments.
What is most worrying in this case is that the article does not even contain any direct criticism or commentary on even the judgment, let alone the judge. It simply informs readers about the judgment and offers context about a similar case in the past. Yet the contempt notice presumes that this is derogatory to judges and even questions the presentation of the article. There is no contempt of court here. The Meghalaya High Court would do well to not only recognise this but also uphold the tradition of inviting the media to discuss and criticise judgments, instead of insisting that the media has no business covering a pending case or offering its opinion on judgments.