Harish Salve explains SC powers on contempt
DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA
NEW DELHI: If a person is found guilty of committing contempt of Supreme Court, will the apex court’s constitutional power to punish him be circumscribed by the Contempt of Court Act (CCA) provisions?
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing in the application filed by Vodafone complaining about misreporting during the hearing of its case, said CCA only provided the guiding principles and would in no way limit the apex court’s power on quantum of punishment, which in appropriate cases could exceed what is provided in the statute. The response came to a query from a five-judge bench comprising Chief Justice S H Kapadia and Justices D K Jain, S S Nijjar, Ranjana P Desai and J S Khehar whether Article 129 of the Constitution, which provides that “the Supreme Court shall be a court of record and shall have all powers of such a court including the power to punish for contempt of itself”, meant it was bridled by the CCA.
After hearing Salve’s view, the CJI said though the bench had not taken any final view, it was of the opinion that provisions of a statute could not limit the Constitution-vested powers of the apex court. In the midst of long deliberation on the necessity of framing media reporting guidelines to protect right of an accused to reputation and dignity as well as preserve sanctity of fair trial, the bench asked for Salve’s view on restricting press freedom derived from right to free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and whether it could only be done through parameters specified under Article 19(2).
The senior advocate said, “The Supreme Court need not deal with the restrictions specified under Article 19(2) because it is only engaged in an exercise to define the contours of press freedom in reporting pending investigation or trial of a case and balancing it with the right of the accused to dignity and reputation.”
Salve said these days it was common to find TV channels standing outside a house being raided by investigating agencies and telecasting minute by minute details of the search operation. “This surely besmirches someone’s reputation. What happens if the agency does not find any incriminating material or does not press any charge at the end of the investigations? Can he not move the constitutional courts seeking relief on the ground that such reporting was destroying his reputation,” he asked.
“The media should be beyond government regulations except acceptable censorship. But to argue that media is beyond all regulation is the limit,” he said. Salve also objected to media using unnecessary hyperboles to describe intense questioning by a bench in serious issues.
He said, “Judges ask sharp questions to get the best out of lawyers. There is no pulling up, tearing into or lambasting involved in the oral argument-based judicial scrutiny system in India. There is a talk of restraining judges from making comments on institutions. If anyone has to exercise restraint, it is the reporters who cover the courts, not the judges nor the lawyers who must not be inhibited in any manner from free and frank exchange of views.”
Counsel Nitya Ramakrishnan said the investigating agencies had been regularly leaking information to media to prejudice an accused branding him as a terrorist though ultimately he might get acquitted in a trial. Appearing for Rajasthan government, counsel Manish Singhvi said a state producing clear and cogent evidence of consistent media misreporting could seek temporary deferment of publication for a limited period.
“However, the order for postponement of publication must be direct, proximate with investigation and must be least intrusive to the freedom of press/electronic media. Thus, the press has a right to report even criminal sub-judice matters as long as they do not impair or destroy fair investigation,” he said. Singhvi said subordinate courts had sovereign power to dispense justice and hence, they had inherent powers to pass appropriate orders to secure the ends of justice.
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