The Meghalaya High Court on Friday held Shillong Times’ editor, Patricia Mukhim, and publisher, Shobha Chaudhuri, guilty of contempt of court. As punishment, the court imposed a fine of Rs 2 lakh each on Mukhim and Chaudhuri. In case they fail to pay the amount within a week, the court said that the two would be imprisoned for six months and the paper “banned”.
While delivering the judgment, the bench asked Mukhim and Chaudhuri to “sit in the corner of the court room” till the court adjourned its proceedings for the day.
The contempt order is in connection with two stories that the Shillong-based daily published in December about a court order seeking better facilities for retired judges and their families. One of the articles titled, “When judges judge for themselves”, had drawn parallels between the order by Justice SR Sen and an order passed by two former judges of the High Court in 2016.
The report had said that according to the order, Sen, who incidentally retired on Friday, wanted several provisions for retired chief justices and judges and their spouses and children. “Besides providing medical facilities for the spouses and children, the order stressed the need for providing protocol, guest houses, domestic help, mobile/internet charge at the rate of Rs 10,000 and mobile for Rs 80,000 for judges,” the report said.
Sen had taken umbrage to the stories, particularly the one headlined, “When judges judge for themselves” and issued a notice to Mukhim and Chaudhuri asking them to explain why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against the newspaper. The notice stated that it was “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”. It called for Mukhim and Chaudhuri to make a “personal appearance” in the court to explain themselves. “Media is not to dictate to the court what the court should do,” the notice added
On December 13, when the two appeared in court, a visibly indignant Sen is supposed to have questioned Mukhim’s qualification “to write about judges”. Subsequently, the matter was placed before another bench – consisting of Meghalaya High Court’s chief justice Mohammad Yaqoob Mir, and Sen himself. Four senior counsels of the court S Dey, N Syngkon K, Ch Gautam and CH Mawlong volunteered offered to stand in as amicus curiae in the case. An amicus curae is usually not party to the case, but offers advice to the court concerning the lawsuit.
On February 1, Mukhim and Chaudhuri, according to court documents, tendered an “unconditional apology”, but the bench in its judgment said it was a “calculated strategy so as to avoid punishment”.
The article “When judges judge for themselves”, the court adjudicated, “is not based on facts and has been published without any research only to scandalize the order of this honourable court”.
“The caption of news report itself is malicious and contemptuous,” the judgment goes on to say.
Social media posts
In addition, the court also took offence to social media posts put up by Mukhim, which seemed to allude to court proceedings. “Patricia Mukhim took the help of social media and even gone to the extent of mocking the judicial system of this country,” the judgment said, referencing the veteran editor’s Facebook posts.
Mukhim’s social media posts, the court said, amounted to “insulting the learned members of the Bar”. The judgement declared: “We would like to ask whether the contemnor, Smti. Patricia Mukhim wants to control the judiciary as per her desire and will? If it is so, she is very much wrong.”
Both Mukhim and Chaudhuri declined to comment, but people familiar with the case told Scroll.in that they would challenge the judgment.