The Meghalaya High Court recently held Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim and publisher Shobha Choudhury guilty of contempt of court. On the occasion of International Women’s Day March, 8, the High Court declared Mukhim and Choudhury guilty of contempt of court for publishing two reports in the Shillong-based daily on December 6, 2018, and December 10, 2018, under the headlines “High Court pursues retirement benefits to judges, family” and “When judges judge for themselves,” respectively.

The bench, comprising of Justice Sudip Ranjan Sen and Chief Justice Mohammad Yaqoob Mir, imposed a fine of Rs 2 lakh on Mukhim and Chaudhuri. If they fail to pay the fine within a week, the order said, both of them would be sent to prison for six months and the newspaper will be banned. It also asked them to “sit in the corner of the courtroom” till the court adjourned its proceedings for the day.

The story that Shillong Times published which cost Mukhim and Choudhary contempt of court had drawn parallels between the order by Justice Sen and an order passed by two former judges of the High Court in 2016. It pointed that Sen, who also retired on Friday pushed for 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.

He then issued a notice to Mukhim and Choudhary commanding them to explain why it should not be considered as contempt of court. After that on December 13, the two appeared in the court where the matter was placed before the bench and four senior counsels of the court S Dey, N Syngkon K, Ch Gautam and CH Mawlong, who voluntarily offered to stand in as amicus curiae in the case.

On February 1, the duo tendered an “unconditional apology” however the bench did not budge from its decision, instead it went on to call the apology a “calculated strategy so as to avoid punishment.”

Mukhim while speaking to SheThePeople.TV said, “We had reported about the post-retirement benefits that judges are entitled to, perhaps our headline may be what irked him but then it is also true that they are taking a call on their own retirement benefits. So the first time that we appeared in the court, we said that if the story had hurt the dignity of the court then we apologize because we never intended it to be that way.

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But the apology was not accepted because apparently my body language did not suggest that I was sorry enough. Even during the course of the hearings (eight in total), there were many personal remarks asking about my qualification, that I am not equipped to be an editor, accusations of yellow journalism, etc. came our way just because we published something that wasn’t aligned with the liking of somebody.”

The judgement also pointed at Mukhim’s social media posts and said, “Patricia Mukhim took the help of social media and even gone to the extent of mocking the judicial system of this country.”

Mukhim commented on this and said, “We have to fight back such tracking of journalists and defend freedom of speech.”

“We had reported about the post-retirement benefits that judges are entitled to, perhaps our headline may be what irked him but then it is also true that they are taking a call on their own retirement benefits.”

Now that Mukhim and Choudhary have been held guilty, they plan to appeal the order in the Supreme Court. For this, a civil society group, Meghalaya People’s Committee for Freedom of Expression and Free Press (MPCFOEFP), have started a crowd-funding initiative.

“Patricia Mukhim and Shobha Choudhury are appealing to the Supreme Court challenging the orders. But there is a need for all of us citizens to come together and send a message that the fourth pillar of democracy should be protected at all cost. Therefore, Meghalaya People’s Committee for Freedom of Expression and Free Press (MPCFOEFP) appeals for all citizens to come together and help,” said MPCFOEFP in a statement. The collective plans to raise around five lakh rupees. If the apex court rejects the appeal then they will use the funds to waive off the fine and the rest of it will go into starting a campaign to reform contempt laws in the country as well as help local journalists and media defend their rights.

Picture credit- Patricia Mukhim

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