In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court has held that any news report critical of the judiciary published with the objective of reforming it cannot be deemed contempt of court.

The verdict was delivered by a joint bench of Justice Anil Kumar Sinha and Hari Prasad Phuyal striking down a guilty verdict passed by Biratnagar Appellate Court against Biratnagar correspondent of Nagarik national daily Khilanath Dhakal who is currently associated with Setopati.

Releasing the full text of the verdict passed on January 16, the apex court observed that a verdict that acquitted the publisher and editor but held the correspondent guilty of contempt of court could not be without prejudice.

On 23 December 2012, judges Giri Raj Paudyal and Shiva Narayan Yadav of Biratnagar Appellate Court had held Dhakal guilty of contempt of court for publishing a byline story criticising the Appellate Court's order passed by erstwhile Chief Judge Gopal Parajuli (who retired as chief justice in 2018) to release a kidnapping accused on personal recognisance. The lower court had imposed a fine of Rs 100 on Dhakal.

Dhakal had written a news story on 21 December 2011 headlined 'Kidnapping accused released on personal recognizance' against which Morang District Bar Association, Biratnagar Appellate Court Bar Association, and Sunsari District Bar Association had lodged a contempt of court case against him and publisher and editor of Nagarik.

Dhakal had deposed before the court that his news report did not intend to undermine the prestige of the judiciary, but if he had inadvertently undermined the court, he was ready to apologise.

According to the case file, Azam Parvez Miya had kidnapped Khaman Singh Bohara for a ransom of rupees one million. Miya, who was sent to judicial custody by Morang District Court, was released by Biratnagar Appellate Court on general date. The newspaper had run the story, along with the photo of Chief Judge Gopal Parajuli, who had passed the order.

The bench observed that any report published with the aim of reforming judiciary should not be punished under contempt of court law.

The court said since the issue reported by the newspaper was not contemptuous, the guilty verdict against Dhakal, who had repeatedly expressed his apology, was erroneous.

If the press is free to criticise the executive and the legislature, then it should not be barred from criticising the judiciary, judges and court employees, the court said.

The judiciary expects responsible comments from press because judges cannot counter the allegations levelled against them in the manner other organs of the state can, the SC said.

"While any mala fide action that undermines the prestige of the judiciary can be held contemptuous, the court should not take a stringent or obstructive view while dealing with contempt of court cases as we have achieved democracy and the constitution as the result of a long struggle.

Both the media and the judiciary work to safeguard democracy," the SC observed in its verdict.

The bench said that any attempt to undermine judges' individual and public life, seriously interfere in the judicial process or create obstacle in the adjudication, cannot be tolerated in the name of press freedom and such acts should be punished under contempt of court law.

The bench observed that press freedom was the foundation of democracy and only an independent press could help maintain transparency in government bodies and make them accountable.

"Both the media and the judiciary work to safeguard democracy"

A version of this article appears in the print on March 02, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.