By Navishta Qureshi, NLIU, Bhopal.

The contempt case against Mumbai Mirror is one of the few cases which have been instituted against a newspaper alleging that the report published therein is contemptuous. What makes this case one of a kind is that proceedings here have been initiated by the court suo moto.

THE CASE:

The cause arose because of reporting of a court-room event by the newspaper. Mumbai Mirror is one of the widely circulated compact newspapers in the city of Mumbai. It is published by ‘The Times of India’ group. In May of 2014, Bombay High Court was hearing a case[1] against Sanjay Punamiya, film director filed by a Kuwaiti royal family of SheikhahFadiahSaad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah concerning certain property disputes. During the hearing before Justice Roshan Dalvi, she accused her husband of offering favourable rulings for an amount of Rs. 25 lakhs. The High Court in this dispute, on May 7th, 2014 ruled that the allegation made by the defendant (Sanjay Punamiya) and his advocate were both scandalous as well as defamatory. It constituted contempt in the face of the court. The court then issued show cause notices on both of them.

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The defendant as well as his advocate tendered unconditional apologies in June of 2014. However, those were not accepted and an order was made to the registry to mark the case for hearing. Against the above ruling as well as for non- acceptance of the apologies which were based on truth as a valid defence, the defendant filed an appeal before a division bench including chief justice of Bombay High Court.

Mumbai Mirror in its edition of May 8th, 2014 published the details of the dispute along with the allegations levelled by Sanjay Punamiya. A coloured caricature was also attached with the news item. The title of the article was ‘You are corrupt, defendant tells judge’.

While deciding the above appeal[2] as not maintainable and initiating suo motu contempt proceedings against the defendant and his advocate under Sec.15 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, the court turned to scrutinize the act of Mumbai Mirror in publishing the news item regarding the dispute. The court held that the report prepared by the reporter, Mr. Bapu Deedwania prima facie constituted criminal contempt under Sec.2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. The court provided two very significant reasons for reaching such a decision.

  1. The report was a hurriedly published result of an incomplete enquiry conducted on the part of the reporter without waiting for the outcome of the enquiry being held by the court.
  2. The report scandalized the reputation of the honourable judge by printing such harsh words along with a coloured caricature.

The court, therefore issued show cause notice to the reporter, Mr. Bapu Deedwania asking him as to why proceedings under Sec.15 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 read with Sec.2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 should not be initiated against him. The High Court issued such notice to the Mr. Sanjay Punamiya (the appellant), Mr. Nilesh Ojha (advocate) and the Editor of Mumbai Mirror (Times of India), Mumbai as well.

Thus, what started initially as a private dispute between two parties regarding property turned into a contempt proceeding against a new-paper which merely reported the events.

ANALYSIS OF THE SECTIONS USED:

The High Court contemplated taking an action under Sec.15 read with Sec.2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. So, it becomes necessary to understand what the law laid down is under the above mentioned provisions.

Sec.2(c)[3]: It definescriminal contempt as publication of any matter which

  1. scandalizes or lowers the authority of any court,
  2. prejudices or interferes with due course of any judicial proceeding,
  3. interferes or obstructs the administration of justice.

The word publication has been laid to include publication of words, signs as well as visual representation. The definition is wide in its ambit as it includes not only harm to authority of court but also any hurdle in the day to day proceedings and functions of the court.

Sec.15[4]It provides that in case of criminal contempt the Supreme Court or the High Court can take suo motu action on its own or on a motion made by Advocate General or any person authorised by him. Any criticism on the personal behaviour of the judge can be held as contempt of the court in case it undermines the confidence of the public in the judicial system as a whole. Similarly, publishing of a report with which the court takes issue can also be held under contempt. The court specially the High Courts and Supreme Court can proceed suo motu in such cases. The idea behind such a provision is that public confidence should be maintained in the efficacy of the justice system in order that administration of justice is made effective.

Following are some cases on the point:

  1. Perspective Publications vs. State Of Maharashtra[5]– An article published by the appellant contained several insinuations that a recent judgment delivered by one of the Judges, was influenced by the fact that the Judge’s brother was extended a loan of Rs. 10lakh by one of the parties. The editor and publisher were held guilty of contempt. The court held that ‘it is open to anyone to express fair, reasonable and legitimate criticisms of any act of conduct of a judge in his judicial capacity or even to make a proper and fair comment on any decision given by him however, a distinction must be made between a mere libel or defamation of a judge and what amounts to a contempt of the court’.
  2. In Re R.S. Mulgaokar[6]– Indian Express published a report regarding a letter that was circulated amongst judges of Supreme Court and High Court regarding drafting a code of ethics. Additionally, it also contained certain comments about the nature and morality of certain judges. Holding the act to be not contempt, the court laid down six principles that provide a guideline in order to decide whether a case of contempt is made out or not.
  3. Leo Roy Fray vs. R. Prasad[7]– The respondent published an article about a smuggling case in which the petitioners were involved. The petitioners moved the court under contempt alleging that the phrases used by the respondents will interfere with the trial of the case. The court dismissed the plea holding that the articles were in no way prejudicing with the trial.
  4. Vijay Mallya vs. Bennett Coleman[8]– An article was published in Times of India based on a pending litigation. The case related to an incident wherein the resident refused to sign a redevelopment agreement with the appellant. The article questioned the ownership of appellant himself. It was alleged by the appellant that such an article shall prejudice the pending legal proceedings. The court did not hold the report to be of contemptuous nature and held that the court’s duty is to decide the dispute on the basis of evidences and not on the basis of newspaper reports.

Truth as a valid defence: Supreme Court has in a case (decided in 2014) has given effect to truth as a valid defence. The constitutional bench in the case of Dr.SubramaniamSwamy v. ArunShourie[9]held thatSec.13(b) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 (as amended in 2006) provides for truth to be a defence in contempt proceedings.Therefore, it was authoritatively held that truth was permissible as a valid defence in all contempt proceedings provided  such publications were in public interest and were made bonafide.

CONCLUSION:

The gist of the entire discussion is that newspapers have the right to publish correct, true and proper reports of events so that its readers may be kept updated. Same is true with the case of reporting judicial or court proceedings. The right of the readers to remain informed cannot be curtailed solely because certain reports may be prejudicial to the interests of courts or its officers. However, the flip side of the coin is that newspapers have been cast with a duty to see that public morality, decency and order of the society is not hampered due to their bold reporting.

In the present instance, the reason behind bringing Mumbai Mirror under scrutiny was that the court found the report to be scandalizing the authority of the court rather than presenting a true picture. According to the Honourable High Court, pending the decision on allegations made on a judge, the reporter should not have framed the reportin such words so as to tarnish the image of a judge. Furthermore, the caricature was found to aggravate the matter as it would clearly imply that the judge was indeed corrupt to anyone who merely had a glance over it, irrespective of the fact that he may have read the accompanying report.

There is fine line of distinction between a true report versus a contemptuous report. The newspapers are required to tread on this fine line with utmost care and caution. It has been time and again held by the courts that a heavy responsibility lies on the press and the media to restrain themselves from publishing such pending administrative matters, if the disclosure of such pending matters damage the dignity, decorum and honour of any individual Judge or members of the judiciary. Elements of responsibility must be present in the minds of the journalists, if any news is published without knowing the authenticity, and the same will be improper and will not be healthy for maintaining the rule of law.[10]  Thus, it can be concluded that a journalist is under a duty to present the facts in such a manner that they speak the truth without hurting the sentiments of others in response.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bombay HC: Punamiya Mumbai Mirror contempt appeal-

http://www.scribd.com/doc/242822979/Bombay-HC-Punamiya-Mumbai-Mirror-contempt-appeal (Last visited on January 8th, 2015)

Bombay HC issues criminal contempt on Mirror for reporting what happened in court & ‘caricature’ – http://www.legallyindia.com/201410135182/Bar-Bench-Litigation/bombay-hc-issues-criminal-contempt-on-mirror-for-reporting-what-happened-in-court-caricature (Last visited on January 8th, 2015)

[1]SheikhahFadiahSaad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah v.Sanjay MishrimalPunamiya&Ors: Original (Civ.) Suit No. 175 of 2014: Decided on May 7th, 2014.

[2]Sanjay MishrimalPunamiya&Ors v. SheikhahFadiahSaad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah: Appeal (L.) No. 313 of 2014: Decided on September 3rd, 2014

[3]Sec.2- Definitions- In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires-

(c) “criminal contempt” means the publication (whether by words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise) of any matter or the doing of any other act whatsoever which-

(i) scandalizes, or tends to scandalize, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court; or

(ii) prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or

(iii) interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner;

[4]Sec.15- Cognizance of criminal contempt in other cases-

(1) In the case of a criminal contempt, other than a contempt referred to in section 14, the Supreme Court or the High Court may take action on its own motion or on a motion made by:-

(a) the Advocate-General, or

(b) any other person, with the consent in writing of the Advocate-General, or

(c) in relation to the High Court for the Union territory of Delhi, such Law Officer as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify in this behalf, or any other person, with the consent in writing of such Law Officer.

(2) In the case of any criminal contempt of a subordinate court, the High Court may take action on a reference made to it by the subordinate court or on a motion made by the Advocate-General or, in relation to a Union territory, by such Law Officer as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify in this behalf.

(3) Every motion or reference made under this section shall specify the contempt of which the person charged is alleged to be guilty.

[5] AIR 1971SC 221

[6] AIR 1978 SC 727

[7]AIR 1958 P&H 377

[8]Criminal Appeal, Contempt Pet. No. 2 of 2009: Decided on March 10th, 2010

[9] Contempt Petition (Crl.) No. 11 Of 1990: Decided on July 24th, 2014.

[10]Madras High Court Practising Advocates Association vs. Registrar, 2012(3) CTC 225

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