Under the ruling handed down on 8 March by the high court in Shillong, the capital of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, Patricia Mukhim, the editor of the Shillong Times, and Shobha Chaudhuri, the newspaper’s publisher, must each pay a fine of 200,000 rupees (2,600 euros) by the end of this week or they will be jailed for six months and the newspaper will be banned.
These contempt of court convictions were prompted by two stories published in the newspaper last December about an order issued by one of the court’s judges, Justice Sudip Ranjan Sen, seeking better provision for retired judges and their families.
One of these stories, headlined “When judges judge for themselves,” revealed that the judge had insisted not only on medical facilities for the spouses and children of retired judges but also on provision of guest houses and domestic help, and payment of mobile phone and Internet charges.
Ironically, the day on which the court presided by Justice Sen convicted the two journalists of contempt was also the day that Sen – who is also known for holding controversial Hindu nationalist views – retired.
“In this ruling, the justice system has committed a gross violation of the separation of powers and has trampled on press freedom, when it should be their guarantor,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“We call on India’s supreme court to overturn this absolutely iniquitous decision, which would pave the way for the worst form of censorship if allowed to set a judicial precedent. It is also high time for India’s legislators to overhaul the outdated contempt of court laws as applied to journalists. The candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections should take up this issue.”
Journalists in northeastern India are exposed to all sorts of harassment. RSF called for a thorough investigation into a kerosene bomb attack in April 2018 on the Shillong Times editor’s home that was probably a reprisal for her investigative reporting on illegal mining in which Meghalaya state officials are allegedly involved.
At least seven journalists, including Emmy Ci Lawbei, Catherine Sangi and Tridip Mandal, were injured when police of the neighbouring state of Assam beat them with batons as they tried to cover a student demonstration in March 2018.
In Manipur, Assam’s neighbour to the east, reporter and editorialist Kishorechandra Wangkhem has been held for more than 100 days under the National Security Act simply for criticizing Manipur’s chief minister.
And in Tripura, Assam’s neighbour to the south, two journalists were killed in the space of two months in 2017. One, Shantanu Bhowmick, was beaten and stabbed to death in September 2017. The other, Sudip Datta Bhaumik, was gunned down by paramilitaries the following November. A third journalist, Suman Debnath, was almost killed in a knife attack in June 2018 while investigating thefts and trafficking in stolen oil.
India is ranked 138th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.