NWMI, IJU raise concern on HC judgementon Shillong Times editor, publisher

HYDERABAD, Mar 11: The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) and the Indian Journalists Union (IJU) have expressed concern over the order of the High Court of Meghalaya holding Shillong Times Editor Patricia Mukhim and Publisher Shobha Chaudhuri of contempt of its court.
The contempt proceedings arose from two reports published in the newspaper on December 6, 2018 and December 10, 2018 entitled ‘When judges judge for themselves’ about retirement benefits for judges and their families.
The court on 8 March asked the Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim and publisher Shobha Chaudhury of the newspaper to sit in a corner in the court hall until rising of the court and imposed a fine of Rs two lakh rupees.
If the fine is not paid in a week, they will be imprisoned for six months and the newspaper will be banned, the court ordered.
The High Court’s judgement appears to be excessive and disproportionate to the perceived misdemeanor of the contemnors. It is also severe and punitive, as the order clearly states that the default of the payment of the fine, would result in the newspaper ‘the so-called ‘The Shillong Times’ automatically closed down (banned)’, NMWI said in a statement.
“This unprecedented order refers to the imposition of fine as a closure but also speaks of a ban of the newspaper in the same breath. The NWMI is deeply concerned that the judges did not give credence to the unqualified apology tendered by the editor and publisher of The Shillong Times and urges the court to accept the apology in the spirit it was given”, it said.
The NWMI stated that it is deeply dismayed over the increasing use of the provision of contempt of court to suppress dissent or alternative viewpoints. Contempt of court is being applied widely and hangs like the proverbial sword of Damocles over the media. There have been numerous attempts to review or even remove some of its provisions, especially of ‘scandalising’ the court, in the interests of fair comment and the pursuit of truth. In several judgements (including in those where contemnors have refused to apologise for their comments), the courts have adopted a more magnanimous response towards criticism.
The NWMI fears that this order, if carried out, 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.
The NWMI urges the High Court of Meghalaya to take a sagacious approach to this issue and thereby help preserve the media’s crucial role as the fourth pillar of democracy.
Indian Journalists Union (IJU) said it was unfortunate that the high court refused to accept the technical objections of their lawyers and an unconditional apology tendered by the editor and publisher and proceeded to punish them.
“ After reading of the impugned news story, we did not find any malice in it. However, we feel, the reporter should have been more careful in choice of words. It seems, the reaction of the court is disproportionate to the cause of contempt,” the IJU statement said.
“In course of the judgement, the court also found fault with the Shillong Times for publishing statements issued by some banned outfits. The IJU is of the firm opinion that such judicial gags on the press, strike at the root of the fundamental democratic rights of freedom of the press and freedom of expression”.