The right to offend


These days, human memories are ephemeral because events occur at the speed of light and technology facilitates flitting from one issue to another. In the process, we fail to notice the history that is being made round us and much less study and analyze them and how they affect us ~ or will affect us. So, when things happen to us, we wonder why but fail to see the connections between the past, the present and the future. The tragedy is that because we are literally seeing so much of what’s happening around globe, which holds a greater part of our attention, we cannot grasp situations for what they are exactly. Last week, the Supreme Court stayed the verdict of the Meghalaya High Court, which had held the Editor and Publisher of The Shillong Times guilty of contempt of court for being critical of a Judge and humiliated them to sit in the corner of the court room time the court rises, as well as fined them a sum of Rs. two lakhs each ~ failure to pay which would invite imprisonment for six months and the possible ban of their newspaper ~ one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in the Northeast. True, courts have been suing people for contempt of court even after Independence though the numbers reportedly reduced after Independence ~ however, the increase of such cases in the past five years is alarming because the provision of contempt of court can and has been used and misused to silence dissenting voices, which is the very life-blood of democracy. Now, the problem is that while laws tend to be unclear sometimes, the use of law also doesn’t take into consideration the perceptions, perspectives, mindsets, attitudes, biases and prejudices of those who are supposed to interpret the law, as well as those are supposed to implement them ~ keeping in mind that human beings are also products of our lived experiences. So, it is not surprising that the Editor and the Publisher of The Shillong Times were held guilty of contempt of court. In 2005, the Editor, Nagaland Page, was sued for contempt of court for quoting a Police Officer, who was critical of the judiciary. The case lasted for over a year in the Court of the Chief Justice of the Gauhati High Court, Guwahati. Finally, the Chief Justice threw out the case after being satisfied (with documentary evidence) that the Police Officer did say what he did ~ which, by the way, is something everyone says almost every day, even now. The Chief Justice, however, did write in his judgment that Police personnel ought to be careful about what they say to the Press. The case happened almost fourteen years ago. We were not so technologically advanced then and so the case went unreported and unrecorded even in the conventional media. But the point is that the contempt of court was used not only to silence the opinion of an individual but also to prevent opinions of an individual from being made known to the public by suing this newspaper. This in effect means that anything that is said unfavourably of the judiciary is to be silenced or better still nothing must be said unfavourably of the judiciary. This is totally antithetical to the essence and ethos of democracy. Perhaps, it is time to revisit the contempt of court especially vis-á-vis the media, which is primarily reposed with the responsibility to ensure that citizens in a democracy are not denied and deprived of their rights to free speech and information, as also to create public opinion on issues that are crucial for citizens’ rights, liberties and freedoms, etc. ~ all of which coalesce to ensure and protect the well-being of the citizenry? Well, it goes with the Media’s turf to face contempt of court on a regular basis because somebody or the other will always be offended ~ but sometimes it becomes necessary to exercise the right to offend. And it is the Press’ right and the responsibility, nay the moral obligation, to offend when those in power flout constitutional provisions, when democracy is threatened, when what is guaranteed by the Constitution is denied to citizens ~ including the right to free speech and the right to information ~ and, when the powerful and the privileged rule the world’s largest democracy as a colony instead of governing it as a sovereign nation.