Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mid-day contempt of court case

Mid-Day's three journalists and one publisher have been sentenced to four months in jail by the Delhi High Court for contempt of court. They were sentenced in the case relating to the reports the daily had carried about Y K Sabharwal, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the Delhi sealing drive. The Delhi High Court had taken suo moto cognizance of the Mid-Day stories.
The media is understandably incensed. It believes that this is an attempt on the part of the judiciary to shield itself from scrutiny and accountability. Senior journalists have said that the Delhi High Court should have gone into the veracity of the allegations made by Mid-Day against the former CJ. This view has been echoed by some eminent lawyers- TOI quoted Prasant Bhushan as saying that the judgement was an "attempt to muzzle the media".

The SC will now decide on the contempt issue. It is important, however, not to miss the nuances to the Delhi HC ruling, whatever opinion one may have about the actions of former CJ Y K Sabharwal. I caught some of the nuances only in one report, that in the TOI of September 22.

The Delhi HC was not pronouncing on the merits of the Mid-Day story. The HC bench headed by Justice R S Sodhi is quoted in TOI as saying:

"The nature of the revelations and the context in which they appear, though purporting to single out former Chief Justice of India, tarnishes the image of the Supreme Court."
How so? Because "by imputing motive to its presiding member, (it) automatically sends a signal that the other members were dummies or were party to fulfil the ulterior design (of Justice Sabharwal)." Besides, Soli Sorabjee, among others, has expressed the view that the cartoon carried by the paper was contemptuous.

In other words, the report had the effect of casting asperions on the SC as a collective, hence the veracity of the report was irrelevant to the issue of contempt of court.

Ordinary people may find it difficult to digest such nuances but those with a nodding acquaintance with the law will know that technicalities such as these can have a crucial bearing on the outcome of a case.

The question then arises: how does a paper report on the actions of a judge or former judge that raise doubts in the minds of the public without in any way appearing to cast aspersions on the Court as a whole? Does it merely highlight the actions of a judge without in any way questioning a given judgement, especially where other judges are involved?

In other words, is there a proper way of reporting such matters in the public interest without inviting action under contempt of court? One hopes that the SC ruling in the matter will shed light on this subject so that the ground rules for media reporting in such matters are clear to all concerned.


The Informer said...

thanks for having a clear view about the mid-day v/s Sabharwal issue. to know more follow the link.

T T Ram Mohan said...

Tayal, thanks, I went your site and got a good idea of the facts of the case.


Unknown Indian said...

The question of whether the current provisions of truth as a defense were or were not violated in this case is irrelevant - the very existence of a law which prevents criticism of judges and judgments is uncivilised, barbaric and against the principles of natural justice. If such a law protected any other section of society, the same judges would probably have declared it as ultra vires of the constitution - the Delhi High Court sentence probably also violates the human rights of the journalists and all ordinary citizens.

M K Tayal said...

Thanks for the comments. The case has not come up for hearing for the last six months (from Aug 2008), despite the SC saying that they would hear the case on Tuesday (When is that tuesday - I have no idea).