Criminal contempt laws must not be used to punish critics of the judiciary

Amnesty International India
Bengaluru/New Delhi: 14 August 2020 2:06 pm

Reacting to the news of lawyer Prashant Bhushan being held guilty of contempt of court by the Supreme Court of India, the Executive Director of Amnesty International India, Avinash Kumar said,

“It is unfortunate that Prashant Bhushan has been held guilty of contempt of court for his tweets criticising the functioning of the judiciary. Because of the importance of an independent judiciary in society, it will inevitably be subject to comments and complaints, which can sometimes be deemed offensive. But courts can and should tolerate criticism.”

“If comments directly affect the reputation of individual judges, they can take recourse to civil remedies like any other person. Outdated provisions of criminal contempt laws in India must not be used to punish critics of the judiciary and limit their freedom of expression and opinion. It is akin to gagging dissent”.

Background:

The Supreme Court had taken suo motu contempt action against Prashant Bhushan for two tweets he had posted. The first tweet was a photograph of Chief Justice SA Bobde on a bike allegedly owned by the son of a political leader belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party in India and another tweet about the court’s functioning during the past six years. Prashant Bhushan has maintained that the two tweets amounted to criticism and not contempt.

The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – to which India is a state party – has noted that all public figures and public institutions are legitimately subject to criticism and stated, “the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties”.

The Contempt of Court Act of 1971 punishes contempt of court with imprisonment that may extend to six months or fine of INR 2000 or both. Amnesty International India recommends the repeal of Section 2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act that defines criminal contempt as any act or publication which scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of, any court.

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