‘Fair criticism of court and verdicts does not amount to contempt of court’In full text of verdict quashing petition seeking contempt charges against Kantipur, court emphasises freedom of expression and public opinions, even in sub judice cases.
The Supreme Court has said fair commentary and reportage on the actions, verdicts and rulings of courts based on facts and truth do not amount to contempt of court.
An extended full bench of the court has said fair, accurate and neutral reportage and comments on the decisions of courts fall under press freedom in a democratic set-up.
Issuing a full text of its verdict on the writ petition filed by advocate Toyanath Dhungana in February 2018 against the publication of a series of news reports in Kantipur on the discrepancies in the date of birth of then chief justice Gopal Prasad Parajuli, the seven-member bench said journalists and media are considered the ears and eyes of the general public and they were just fulfilling their duty to inform the public on the decisions, including those by the court.
Dhungana had moved the court claiming the series of news reports by Kantipur daily, the Post’s sister paper, that said Parajuli had changed his date of birth to extend his service in the court, amounted to contempt of court. The petitioner had named Kailash Sirohiya, chairman and managing director of Kantipur Publications; Swastika Sirohiya, director of Kantipur Publications; and Sudheer Sharma, editor-in-chief of Kantipur, and Krishna Gyawali, Kantipur correspondent, as defendants.
The full text of the verdict issued in February last year, which quashed the petition, has said the media reports claiming the discrepancies in the date of birth were unrelated to the court’s proceeding and but instead to the personal life of Parajuli, hence, the reports did not amount to the contempt of court.
“A court’s actions and verdicts can be criticised and mere criticism of the verdicts do not amount to contempt of court. Any criticism without mala fide intention but with a fair motive to support and caution the court is not a subject of contempt of court,” reads the verdict. It, however, says freedom of expression and press are not absolute concepts.
The verdict says freedom of expression and the freedom of press and the dignity of court are both sensitive matters. And, criticism of courts, their verdicts and the judges with a mala fide intention can always be a subject of contempt of court, according to the verdict by Justices Ananda Mohan Bhattarai, Hari Krishna Karki, Meera Khadka, Deepak Kumar Karki, Prakash Man Singh Raut, Bishowambhar Prasad Shrestha and Ishwar Prasad Khatiwada.
“Spreading rumours and scandals with an intention to tarnish the image of the courts and judges and influence and create hurdles in the court’s decision-making process cannot be justified in the name of freedom of expression,” reads the ruling.
Two other full texts of the verdicts on the petitions seeking contempt of court proceedings against Kantipur were also issued on Tuesday which also said the media are free for a fair and balanced criticism of the courts and their verdicts.
Issuing a full text in the writ petitions by advocate Anjani Kumar Pokharel, a division bench of justices Bishowambhar Prasad Shrestha and Sapana Pradhan Malla has said the comments and reporting on the verdicts and rulings do not undermine the dignity of the court.
“Just, fair, reasonable and constructive comments on court verdicts cannot be discouraged,” reads the full text.
Similar to the conclusion of the extended full bench, the Shrestha-led bench has said criticisms made with mala fide intention to hamper and influence sub judice cases, however, can be perceived as contempt of court.
Pokharel in May 2013 had filed a separate contempt of court case against Kantipur Publications Chairman and Managing Director Sirohiya, Director Swastika Sirohiya, Editor-in-Chief Sharma and journalist Bijay Kumar Pandey regarding Pandey’s article related to the ruling in the appointment of Lokman Singh Karki, the then chief commissioner of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority.
The division bench also quashed yet another petition on a contempt of court case against Kantipur correspondent Ghanashyam Khadka regarding a news report about court rulings on a gold smuggling case and Kantipur’s Editor-in-Chief Sharma for an editorial titled “Judicial Deviation”.
The full text of the verdict on the petition filed by advocate Ratna Kumari Shrestha said fair and accurate reports on judicial proceedings and fair criticism of judicial acts do not amount to contempt of court.
The full texts on Tuesday come after the Supreme Court on Friday acquitted four former chief justices with contempt of court and quashed the petitions filed against them.
Issuing a final verdict in two separate petitions filed by Advocates Lochan Bhattarai and Dhanjit Basnet, a division bench of Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana and Justice Sapana Pradhan Malla said that the statement issued by retired chief justices Min Bahadur Rayamajhi, Anup Raj Sharma, Kalyan Shrestha and Sushila Karki on January 8 in relation to the December 20, 2020 House dissolution by erstwhile KP Sharma Oli government did not amount to contempt of court.
The four former chief justices had on January 8 had made a joint statement saying that the Constitution of Nepal doesn’t allow the Oli government to dissolve the House of Representatives. The petitioners had claimed the former chief justices were trying to influence the court on a sub judice matter.
The Rana-led bench said there was not enough ground to convict the former chief justices for contempt of court. The four former chief justices have been maintaining that exercising their right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution cannot be a contempt of court.
The Supreme Court’s full texts on Tuesday also come on the heels of controversy surrounding Chief Justice Rana. Media reports, including by Kantipur, the Post’s sister paper, suggested that Rana sought a “share” in the Deuba Cabinet, demanding at least two ministries for “his people”.
The Supreme Court on Monday issued a statement, refuting media claims, but observers said the judiciary, and the chief justice for that matter, coming into question is a matter of grave concern.
Some, including onlinekhabar.com, reported that Rana had made similar bargains with KP Sharma Oli as well when he was the prime minister.
The Supreme Court running into controversy has been viewed by constitutional experts and observers as a serious threat to constitutionalism and democratic principles, particularly the spirit of the separation of powers. The debate of late has been raging whether public comments should be allowed on issues that are sub judice in the court. Recently on September 2, Justice Hari Phuyal, while responding to a petition with regards to the constitutional appointments, also observed that there was a need to finalise whether public opinions and comments should be allowed in sub judice cases.
Tuesday’s full texts, however, attempt to settle these issues as well, which are subject to interpretation, though.
“A court is a public institution. People can have opinions about the cases a court is dealing with and such opinions can be expressed in different ways. Justices at times might have to face some bitter comments. But it’s not possible to follow what is being said,” reads the full text. “Maintaining a balance between upholding the freedom of expression and the court’s right to act on contempt charges and strengthening democratic values are the need of the hour.”