CPJ dismayed by contempt of court ruling in India

New York, September 24, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is dismayed by the New Delhi High Court’s decision last week to sentence four journalists to four months in prison apiece on contempt of court charges stemming from a series of articles and a political cartoon accusing a former chief justice of official misconduct. The journalists are free on bail and plan to appeal to the Supreme Court. 

“The Indian judiciary has a disturbing history of abusing contempt of court provisions to silence critics and shield the institution from public scrutiny,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The New Delhi High Court in this case does not appear to have considered truth as a defense. If an appeal goes ahead, we hope the Supreme Court will address this central issue and overturn the journalists’ convictions.”

The case arises from investigative reports and a satirical cartoon about former Supreme Court Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal published in the New Delhi edition of the newspaper Mid Day. The reports alleged that decisions made by the chief justice in a controversial land-use case, which resulted in the closure of thousands of commercial establishments operating from residential areas, had benefited his sons’ business interests.

“The publications, in the garb of scandalizing a retired chief justice of India, have, in fact, attacked the very institution, which according to us, is nothing short of contempt,” the New Delhi High Court said in a ruling issued Friday, The Associated Press reported.

A number of former Supreme Court judges and prominent lawyers have called for an independent inquiry into the newspaper’s allegations of judicial misconduct, according to local press reports.

“What we have said is the truth, and that is why we should not be hauled up for contempt,” said Mid Day Editor Vitusha Oberoi, who was among the journalists convicted. The other defendants are City Editor M.K. Tayal, cartoonist Irfaan Khan, and S.K. Akhtar, publisher of Mid Day at the time the articles appeared.

In 2006, India’s parliament passed an amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act introducing truth as a defense. Local journalists say this case marks the first known test of the new provision.