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Above: In his Facebook post, Tirodkar alleged there are rates at which bail orders can be obtained

A scurrilous post against judges on Facebook proved costly for a journalist and led him to being imprisoned and fined

By Naved Ahmed

The Bombay High Court recently slapped a contempt charge on journalist Ketan Tirodkar and sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs 2,000 for publishing certain posts on Facebook.

A bench of Justices AS Oka, SC Dharmadhikari and RM Savant took suo motu notice after Tirodkar showed judges in a bad light in Facebook posts by mentioning how they took bribes for passing orders in favour of the bribe-giver. He also accused retired judges of acting as “middlemen” to broker deals for passing favourable orders. The Court initiated proceedings against him when the chief justice of the Bombay High Court received a letter which contained the remarks of the journalist.

The judges were hesitant to replicate the Facebook posts, word by word or sentence by sentence, in the judgment as they thought it might be too harsh for the dignity of the Court. The judgement said: “The gist of the allegations is that Judges of this Court can be managed. That some of the Lady Judges act like prostitutes. That some other retired and sitting Judges are land-grabbers.”

The words and language used in the online posts were “that the Judges have sold justice and there are rates at which bail orders and anticipatory bail orders can be obtained”. The bench equated this with a menu card in a restaurant. The judges were also accused of brushing aside “instances of blatant corruption by forbidding or prohibiting use of mobile phones. Thus, the endeavour of the Judges is not to allow the public to access their misdeeds.”

The bench said that contempt proceedings often extend already lengthy proceedings. Following Supreme Court guidelines on contempt proceedings, the bench said that only after the contemnor’s interests had been safeguarded and only after he had been given due opportunity to be heard, had it delivered such a judgment.

The bench seemed reluctant to award punishment for the offence as the judgment began by saying: “It is extremely unfortunate and equally painful that this Bench has to proceed and decide whether the respondent has committed criminal contempt.” The judges further claimed that they were not free from criticism, but a court’s integrity should not be maligned without any reason. They said: “It is not the claim of the judiciary that it commits no wrong or no error in discharge of its obligations and duty to the people.”

The bench recalled a previous order where it mentioned the reason for contempt proceedings to be instituted. “The language used is derogatory to the Judges of this Court. This Court is of the opinion that such writings tend to scandalise and lower the dignity of the Court. Such writings also interfere with the administration of justice.”

But the ultimate reason for the punishment, the bench concluded, was that the journalist did not deny that these posts appeared on his Facebook profile and were posted by him. The bench concluded that the respondent was a well educated man who was well versed with the law. He had approached the Court on several occasions for PILs and was not ignorant of the law (which is not a defence anyway). “The respondent is well educated and is aware of the consequences of the publication attributed to him.”

They said that the respondent could have moved the Court by filing PILs highlighting alleged illegal land allotment by ministers. He could have moved the Court challenging allotment of land to judges, but this does “not permit him to mount a scurrilous and reckless attack on Presiding Officers and Judges. He has chosen lady Presiding Officers and Judges and targeted them personally. He says that they are vulnerable and can be easily exploited for favourable judicial orders”.

The bench said this was a serious allegation, and the one who claims this “carries the burden to establish and to prove it to the hilt.”

The bench said that the respondent paraded himself both as a “hero and a victim” and put these comments in the public domain to garner public sympathy. He sought applause and praise from the public as well as sympathy, all at the same time. “But we cannot forget that this is at the cost of the prestige, dignity and reputation of the judiciary which includes this Court,” the bench said. The judges said they are duty bound to protect the dignity and reputation of Courts of Justice. Such duty is guaranteed by the Constitution of India. As the judiciary is seen as impartial and independent, such statements cannot be ignored, they said. The judges would have to go forward and perform the “unpleasant tasks of censorship”. The judgment deliberately withheld the names of the implicated judges so as to avoid unnecessary embarrassment and harassment to them.

This is not the first time that a journalist has been booked for contempt. A famous case was in 2002 when author Arundhati Roy was fined Rs 2,000 and sentenced to jail for a day by the apex court. She had written an article protesting against a Supreme Court order that allowed the height of the Narmada dam to be increased. The Court was initially reluctant to initiate proceedings against her, but ultimately sentenced her to a day in jail.

And in 2016, former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju was issued a contempt notice after he criticised the judgment in the sensational Soumya murder case. Justice Katju, in Facebook posts, said that the judgment had “fundamental flaws”. The case was finally dropped after he apologised to the Supreme Court.

Though freedom of speech is a fundamental right, it is not absolute and the judiciary has constantly reminded us of this.

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