Power of contempt of court misused to stifle free speech — Prashant Bhushan
New Delhi, Sep. 3 (PTI): Activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, convicted and fined by the Supreme Court for contempt of court, said this power is sometimes misused or abused in an attempt to stifle free speech or discussion about the judiciary.
He called the contempt of court jurisdiction “very dangerous” and said it should be abolished.
“Every citizen in a democracy, those who are familiar with the working of the judicial system and the Supreme Court, should be able to speak freely but unfortunately that has also been treated as contempt of court by scandalising,” he said.
“In this the judge acts as accuser prosecutor and as a judge,” Bhushan said at a webinar, ‘Freedom of Speech and The Indian Judiciary’, organised by Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia.
“It is a very dangerous jurisdiction in which judges act in their own cause and that is why in all countries this power to punish has been abolished. It is only continued in few countries like India,” he said.
The top court had imposed a token fine of Re 1 on Bhushan for his tweets against the judiciary. It asked him to deposit the fine by September 15, failing which he will attract a jail term of three months and debarment from law practice for three years.
He said that the power of contempt of court is sometimes it is abused or misused by the judiciary in an attempt to stifle free speech or free discussion about the judiciary.
“I am not saying that there are no vile or scandalous scurrilous allegations being made against judges. They are. But they are dismissed for what they are. People understand that these are scurrilous and unsubstantiated allegations. The respect for the judiciary does not stand on the ability of the court to stifle this kind of criticism even it is sometimes scurrilous and unfair,” Bhushan said.
Talking about his tweets, he said it was what he felt was role of the top court and not protecting democracy in the last six years.
The lawyer said the contempt of court should be abolished and it was for this reason that he along with former Union minister Arun Shourie and veteran journalist N Ram filed a plea challenging the constitutional validity of a legal provision dealing with criminal contempt.
“Initially the matter was listed before Justice D Y Chandrachud but later it was removed from him and sent before Justice Arun Mishra (retired Wednesday) whose views on this contempt are well known and earlier also he had accused me of scandalising and contempt of court just because I had told former CJIs Justice J S Khehar, Dipak Misra and him that they should not hear a case due to conflict of interest,” he said.
Bhushan said that he is hopeful that this focus on the business of scandalising the court will lead to reform in the law and abolish this part of criminal contempt as it is an unreasonable restriction on freedom of speech.
Renowned author Arundhati Roy also spoke on the subject and said that it is pity that in India of 2020 should have to gather to discuss something as primitive as the right to free speech.
“Surely this is the most fundamental block of a functioning democracy,” she said. Bhushan had said on Monday that he would submit the token fine of Re 1 imposed by the Supreme Court in the contempt case for his tweets against the judiciary, but also indicated he would file a review plea against the order.