Meghalaya High Court gags the press

IN Regional Media | 29/05/2015
An already beleaguered media in this hill-state will lose its freedom after this order.
LINDA CHHAKCHHUAK reports (Pix: Meghalaya High Court, taken from the official website).
In an unprecedented ruling that has effectively gagged the press, the Meghalaya High Court (MHC) has restrained the media from publishing bandh calls. 
The court order was issued on 27th May 2015, the day the banned insurgency group, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), called a bandh in the state to protest against the State Government’s dilly-dallying over a crucial Bill called the Village Administration Bill, a District Council Bill to empower the customary institutions at village level by law. 
The media has become the unwitting whipping boy in the heightened tussle between the State Government, the District Council and traditional Institutions. This is a second gag on the press this past month, the earlier one being a restraint on the media from publishing any statements or interviewing the former chief executive member of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), Adelbert Nongrum, who was held for contempt of court for talking on a judgment of the MHC on a Khasi customary institution.
In the present instances, the Court directed the State Government to register criminal cases against the press under appropriate provisions of the Law while the Contempt of Court Act might apply separately if any member of the press violated this gag. The full text of the judgment can be found here.  No other judgments are there on the website between May 12 to May 26, 2015.
The gag order was made in response to a ‘request’ from the Director General of Police, Rajiv Mehta to restrain the media “from publishing any statements issued in the name of the HNLC or any other organization which may have the effect of disturbing the even tempo of public life in the state which has a long international border with Bangladesh.” The Court noted that the HNLC is a banned organization whose statements are given ‘undue’ publicity in the print and electronic media.
The judgment was on a case Writ Petition (C) no. 127 of 2015 with the petitioner being the Registrar General (RC) of the MHC and the state government as the respondent which came before the full bench comprising of   comprising of  Chief  Justice  Uma Nath Singh, Justice T Nandakumar Singh and Justice S R Sen.
The origin of this order emerged from an in-house MHC office note on the impact of the bandh put up by the RC of the MHC which was taken up by the Judges as a Writ Petition with its own Registrar as the appellant. The office note which the RC put up was a bunch of press clippings on the impact of the bandh on attendance of its own Court staff and on other essential services such as hospitals and pharmacies etc on 27th itself.
The main body of the judgment was on the usual responsibility of the state government to ensure that life goes on normally despite bandh or hartals,  quoting several landmark rulings and judgment by courts in various parts of the country including the Supreme Court of India. It also highlighted the liability of the organizations, political parties and persons to pay for the losses made due to the bandh call as well as damage to properties if incurred by the illegal bandh enforcement. 
Among other instructions , the three judge order directed the State Government to authorize the local administration to take the assistance of paramilitary forces, which are positioned in Shillong, in sufficient strength for holding flag marches or dispel fear from the mind of common citizens…”
The MHC found the DGP’s request worth considering under the “present scenario,”   and  directed that the statements of organizations which may disturb the even tempo of day to day public life and cause violation of fundamental rights of citizens in particular under article 19 and 21of the Constitution of India relating to strikes, bandhs, hartals, road blockade and holding rallies with unlawful design shall not be issued by any of the print and electronic media.”
Curiously, the order papers do not mention the names of any advocates present at the court when this case was heard.
The major question now is whether the MHC judgment overturns several previous judgments on similar ‘requests’ which have been thrown out by the various courts including the Supreme Court of India upholding the freedom of the press to publish important information for public knowledge.
The most eloquent case is that of S. Sudin vs The Union Of India And Others in the Kerela High Court on 29th October 2014 which has dealt with the question, “Whether the print and electronic media can be prohibited from publishing/ broadcasting/ telecasting any news for call of hartal/strike by a political party or an organization?” 
The answer, after several pages of discourse, is: “From the foregoing discussion, we conclude that this Court, in exercise of writ jurisdiction, cannot issue any writ restraining from publishing/broadcasting any information regarding call of hartal/strike.”
Shreya Singhal vs the Union of India, is another case which elicited the  landmark judgement which upheld freedom of expression vis a vis Article 19 (2). It may be mentioned here that going by this judgment when the newspapers here published the statements of various organizations calling for strikes and bandhs, the press in Meghalaya have not violated any of the parameters outlined in  Article 19 namely: harming the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
Media embroiled in ongoing row 
Significantly the Meghalaya press has been boycotting the chief minister of the state, Dr Mukul Sangma over the past few months in protest against his statement in the Assembly in which he called the press the publicity wing of the underground and other outfits. 
But, with this court order, as well as with contempt notices issued against newspaper editors, the Meghalaya media has been made to cower. The editors of the Shillong Times and the Meghalaya Times had been summoned for Contempt of Court earlier on for publishing the expressed views of Mr Nongrum, KHADC chief mentioned above. They were pardoned on grounds that they were only doing their job by reporting what was news. Mr Nongrum was sentenced to jail for contempt of court but is out on bail. Another customary official or headman was jailed for 20 days for contempt of court.
All these events have resulted in the public, and particularly the Press, becoming extremely cautious with reporting of court matters. The gagging of the media in this hill state is worrisome and bodes ill for the freedom of the press.

Linda Chhakchhuak is an independent journalist based in Shillong, Meghalaya.)
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