In a welcome move on March 15, 2019, in the Criminal Appeals filed by Patricia Mukhim, editor, and Shobha Chaudhuri, publisher of The Shillong Times, against the order of contempt passed by the Meghalaya High Court, the Hon’ble Supreme Court issued notice on the appeal and stayed the operation of the High Court’s order until the matter is finally decided by the Supreme Court. Advocate Vrinda Grover appeared for the appellants in the Supreme Court.
On March 8, 2019, the High Court of Meghalaya in its judgement in the Registrar General, High Court of Meghalaya vs Patricia Mukhim and another, case no 37 of 2018, held Patricia Mukhim and Shobha Chaudhuri, the editor and publisher of The Shillong Times, guilty of contempt of court. Rejecting their unconditional apology, the court ordered them to sit in a corner of the court until it rose; pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh each within a week, failing which the newspaper ‘the so-called ‘The Shillong Times’ automatically closed down (banned)”. Read the full judgement here.
The report in question High Court Pursues Retirement Benefits to Judges, Family, published on December 6, 2018 in The Shillong Times, reports court proceedings in the case Registrar General, High Court of Meghalaya vs the State Government of Meghalaya, in which the presiding judge, Justice SR Sen directed the government to revise the rule for benefits to retired judges to include spouses and children. Justice Sen, who also delivered the judgement in the contempt case on March 8, retired on the same day.
Several journalists’ organisations expressed outrage over what was perceived to be an excessive and disproportionate penalty imposed by the Meghalaya High Court. The Editors Guild of India termed the order of the Meghalaya High Court “intimidatory” and said that it undermines press freedom. In its statement, the Guild said that “It is ironical that the judiciary which should uphold press freedom has instead issued an order that militates against freedom of expression.”
The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) in its statement expressed its dismay over “the increasing use of the provision of contempt of court to suppress dissent or alternative viewpoints” and stated that the judgement could not only result in the intimidation of the individuals concerned but could also deter freedom of expression and threaten press freedom in the country as a whole.
With the timely intervention of the Supreme Court, protection of the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech has been upheld.