Power of contempt of court misused to stifle free speech: Prashant Bhushan

“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 in a webinar

Prashant Bhushan (File photo/Getty images)
Prashant Bhushan (File photo/Getty images)
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PTI

Activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, convicted and fined by the Supreme Court for contempt of court, alleged on Wednesday that this power is sometimes misused or abused in an attempt to stifle free speech or discussion about the judiciary.

He termed 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 alleged, while speaking 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 opined.

The top court had on Monday 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 would attract a jail term of three months and debarment from law practice for three years.

"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.

He 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.

Renowned author Arundhati Roy also spoke at the event and said the right to free speech was "the most fundamental block of a functioning democracy".

She said that over the last few years the country has seen sudden demonetisation, introduction of GST, abrogation of section 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Citizenship Amendment Act and the COVID-19 lockdown.

These have been like silent attacks masked by pre existing illness, she said.

Roy said the judiciary cannot be expected to repeal its power of contempt and citizens will have to strive to make it redundant by speaking their minds responsibly.

Mumbai-based lawyer Iqbal Chagla FCC President S Venkat Narayan also spoke at the webinar.

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