In a contemptuous ruling, the Delhi High Court today sentenced four journalists of Mid-Day newspaper to four months in jail.
It ruled that articles and a cartoon in the newspaper accusing former Chief Justice of India, Mr. Y. K. Sabharwal, were tantamount to contempt of court and would tarnish the image of the highest court in the people’s eyes.
Former CJI Sabharwal retired in January this year, after a series of high-profile rulings in his career. In the past few months, he has been embroiled in controversy, especially related to his ruling over banning commercial establishments in residential parts of Delhi. The accusations are that this ruling benefited his son’s commercial enterprises.
Contempt of Democracy
I wish to focus on the contempt of court ruling by the Delhi High Court, which interestingly was a proceeding initiated suo moto by the Court itself.
The Midday Editor, who was also sentenced, has clarified that they have taken truth to be their defense. They are going to appeal in the Supreme Court.
What is the ‘truth defense’ in this context? The archaic Contempt of Court Act (1971) was amended in 2006 (PDF) to add contempt acts not punishable:
“The court may permit, in any proceeding for contempt of court, justification by truth as a valid defence if it is satisfied that it is in public interest and the request for invoking the said defence is bona fide.”
If the journalists believe they’re telling the truth, why shouldn’t they be allowed the truth defense? Let further inquiry and investigation determine whether the articles and allegations were false, and if so, the journalists can be proceeded against. Gagging the media in such a way is tantamount to contempt of democracy!
Not surprisingly, there is going to be media outrage over this ruling. Experts have argued in the past about how the amendment to the act itself falls short of expectations, and as such is impotent to curtail the draconian contempt powers of the judiciary. A TOI editorial, Contempt for the Pen argues on Mid-Day’s behalf. 18 eminent personalities say “We Are Equally Guilty” on Outlook.
State of the Judiciary
Financial Times from London highlighted the state of affairs in the Indian courts today:
- No. of cases pending before the Supreme Court in June 2007 is over 43,000. In 1998, there were less than 20,000.
- There are 3.7 million cases in High Courts and 25 million in lower courts.
- World Bank rated India 173rd out of 175 for contract enforcement.
- An employment termination dispute takes 20 years if fought all the way.
- It takes an average 3.9 years to enforce a contract (compared with less than 10 months in China).
With such a state of affairs, the Judiciary is showing contempt to itself, to justice, to democracy, and the nation. It better start focusing on reform and clean up its act, rather than hold freedom of expression ransom in this struggling democracy.