Blurring lines: The personal and the public in the age of social media
The recent contempt of court judgment against the editor of The Shillong Times raises questions on journalism in the digital age.
Pre-social media, it was easy enough to separate worlds. Work generally stayed at work. What happened outside the office rarely made it beyond your circle of friends.
The recent case of contempt of court against the editor of The Shillong Times has hit headlines. Many advocate that it is a breach of freedom of the press. The High Court insists that the judgment, which found Patricia Mukhim (the editor) and Shobha Chaudhuri (the publisher) guilty of contempt of court, is within its jurisdiction.
What makes this case unique is the use of evidence that led to the judgment. What started off as a newspaper report deemed to be contemptuous of the judiciary, ended up entangled with personal social media posts.
The offending reports
The contempt proceedings were initiated on the basis of reports published in The Shillong Times on December 6, 2018 and December 10, 2018 under the headings, “High Court pursues retirement benefits to judges, family” and “When judges judge for themselves”, respectively.
The latter report, as can be seen, uses known facts about the case. It reports on the High Court judges who were seeking certain retirement benefits for them along with their spouses and children. But it opens with case law to lead the reader to think a certain way.
The headline insinuates that those who benefit from the judgment (the judges themselves) are also those who are pronouncing it. “When judges judge for themselves” – The headline is one you would expect for an op-ed. It states an opinion and does it quite clearly.
However, the byline reads, “By our reporter”. Reporters report. They do not express opinions. Opinions come with an inherent bias. As a newspaper, The Shillong Times should not be making its reporters write opinion pieces under the garb of reporting.
As they saying goes, “A crown does not a king make”. Similarly, presenting the piece as a report does not actually make it one.
Social media posts
Cited in the 37-page judgment were three social media posts made by Patricia Mukhim.
The judgment wrote that one of the Amicus Curiae had taken note of the fact that “the contemnor, Smti. Patricia Mukhim took the help of social media and even gone to the extent of mocking the judicial system of this country.”
What did she say in these posts? Mukhim had made three posts on December 13, 17, and 18 last year. In one she chastised all political parties for being “spineless” and praised the CPI(M) for “upholding constitutional morality”.
The context for this post is not clear and in no way seems to be talking about the judicial system and its officers.
In the second post, Mukhim wrote, “Today while appearing in this court, as a Christian, I wondered if we will be judged similarly on the Day of Judgment. Will God sit at the top of the pile looking down on us so he can mock us poor sinful creatures who are prone to errors? Will God reserve the choicest abuses for us journalists? That’s what the earthly Gods to believe.”
She likens the judges hearing her contempt proceedings to gods. Definitely moving towards contemptuous territory here.
The last post was long and sought the advice of her lawyer friends on court room decorum. She accused Justice S.R. Sen of telling her counsel to “shut up” and for having deemed her guilty before the trial was even over. She also accuses Amicus Curiae to be a “coterie” who feed judges “gossip”.
Justice Sen wrote an almost self-righteous response to this in the judgment (bizarrely referring to himself in third person), saying, “Justice S.R. Sen replied that if at all, any such remarks have been made to any litigants or officer by any Judge, the person concerned should have reported to Hon’ble the Chief Justice and I myself with full faith and conscience, I say that I never asked any litigants or officer or lawyer about their personal life, rather it is a known fact to every members in the bar that I speak very less and hear the matters in accordance with law. So, if it indicates to Justice S.R. Sen, it is totally false and without any basis and we Judges maintain the dignity of the Court at all costs.”
Mixing of worlds
Why were Patricia Mukhim’s personal social media posts used as evidence against her in the judgment? The contempt of court case was over two reports in the newspaper for which she is editor. Nothing more, nothing less.
Why did Justice Sen insist on clearing his name by declaring, by himself, that “if it indicates to Justice S.R. Sen, it is totally false and without any basis.” A judge definitely cannot absolve himself of his own (alleged) wrongdoings.
The question now is, for public personalities like newspaper editors, is the line between private and professional one that no longer exists?
Social media is by its nature, in some way or the other, public. Are journalists expected not to have any personal opinions at all for fear of their neutral credentials being questioned?
The High Court of Meghalaya seemed to think so when it made no distinction between traditional media (in this case The Shillong Times) and social media.
The judgment reads, “The social media has a right to publish the news and is a part of the democracy, subject to duty. (But) The sacred duty of the media is to publish correct news and sell their papers but it is limited, subject to their duties.”
This case is not black and white. It’s multiple shades of grey. But one thing is clear, the language used by the High Court when it pronounced the judgment, was high-handed and (ironically) filled with contempt. Chief Justice Mohamad Yaqoob Mir told the editor, Patricia Mukhim, and publisher Shobha Choudhury, “to sit in the corner of the courtroom till the rising of the court”.
Then the court imposed on them a fine of Rs 2 lakh each, which was to be deposited to the registry for the welfare fund of the high court “within a week”. Failing that, “both the contemnors will have to undergo six months simple imprisonment and the paper so called ‘Shillong Times’ will automatically come to an end (banned)”.
The Shillong Times is probably the oldest newspaper in the region. Is it within the jurisdiction of the High Court to ban newspapers? That’s a question for another round of litigation.
This case makes it amply evident that the question of contempt of court pales in comparison to the question of whether personal opinions on social media can be used against us.