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Two IFEX members condemn sentencing of editors, publisher and cartoonist for alleged contempt

(WPFC/IFEX) - The following is a joint WPFC-IPI letter to the Secretary General of the Supreme Court of India:

Oct. 9, 2007

The Secretary General
Supreme Court of India
Tilak Marg
New Delhi-110 001 (India)

Dear Mr. Secretary General:

On behalf of the International Press Institute (IPI) -the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in over 120 countries- and the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) -an organization representing 46 press freedom groups from throughout the world- we express our utmost rejection of the sentencing of two editors, a cartoonist and the publisher of the Mid Day newspaper for alleged contempt of court stemming from a series of investigative reports.

On Sept. 21, the Delhi High Court found editors Vitusha Oberoi and M.K. Tayal, cartoonist Irfaan Khan and publisher S.K. Akhtar guilty of contempt of court and sentenced them to four months in prison after the articles and a satirical cartoon claimed that the sons of then-Indian Supreme Court Justice Y.K. Sabharwal benefited from one of their father's rulings.

According to the articles, the decision opened the way for the demolition of several buildings, which increased the value of a neighboring shopping mall that belongs to Sabharwal's sons.

This blatant conflict of interest or the truthfulness of the articles had no bearing in the decision of the Delhi High Court, which applied this unjust contempt law in a most arbitrary manner. The court's actions reflect a true contempt for democracy and constitute a violation of the journalists' constitutional right to express themselves freely without the whimsical interventions of the State.

There exists abundant international jurisprudence that considers insult and contempt laws as a direct violation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose Article 19 specifically protects the right to inform the public without any state impediments, as well as several treaties and conventions.

The essence of these laws has its origin in the Roman Empire, which instituted them to shield the emperor from public criticism. Today, in India and too many other countries, they act as a Damocles sword dangling over the collective heads of the news media, forcing them to fulfill their duties to keep the public informed at the risk of being imprisoned and their publications shut down.

Aggravating this unwise decision is the fact that not only those journalists directly involved in the reporting and completion of the articles were incriminated and sentenced, but also the publisher of the newspaper, victim of a toxic cascading effect.

Such jurisprudence also supports the concept that public officials should expect more, and not less, scrutiny and criticism from the rest of society. This acceptance of being a willing target of the media's slings and arrows also implies public officials should restrain from using these laws in order to silence criticism directed at them.

After the defendants -supported by numerous civic groups and outstanding members of the Indian society- appealed their sentences to the Indian Supreme Court, this tribunal rejected pleas for declaring the sentences null and void and put its decision on hold until January 2008.

The Delhi High Court's decision has triggered an international storm of criticism because it constitutes an arbitrary obstacle to the free flow of ideas and thoughts and will foster self-censorship among journalists who fear being forced to pay with their freedom just for doing their jobs.

Therefore, we urge the Indian Supreme Court to declare the lower court's decision null and void thus showing journalists in your country and the world that transparency and accountability are two fundamental pillars of the Indian democracy.

E. Markham Bench
Executive Director
World Press Freedom Committee

Johann P. Fritz
International Press Institute

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