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The Hindu on : Contempt and freedom

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, October 27, 1999

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Opinion | Previous

Contempt and freedom

Sir, - The Supreme Court expressed its displeasure and anguish at the action of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and its leader, Ms. Medha Patkar, and the writings of Ms. Arundhati Roy on a litigation actively in suit before it. The court, however, refrained from initiating contempt proceedings against them.

The NBA activists' response was guarded and dignified. They felt hurt and added that they were not heard by the apex court before it expressed its disapproval. They, however, called off the agitation.

The apex court was seized of the matter and was anxiously considering the contentions of the various parties. The actions and statements of the agitationists were such as to tend to interfere with its calm and dispassionate examination of the issues involved. It was a highly emotive issue, and the NBA had overwhelming support from the people of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and also international support.

There is a strong and peremptory demand by one side for the construction of the dam and an equally strong and strident opposition to it. The court has the very difficult and unenviable task of reconciling the conflicting interests - whether the benefits accruing from construction of the dam outweigh its ill- effects.

This is reminiscent of the Sunday Times case (the thalidomide aftermath). Lord Denning in the Court of Appeal observed: ``Trial by newspaper should not be allowed. However, the public interest in a matter of national concern had to be balanced against the interests of the parties in a fair trial for settlement. In the present case the public interest and discussion outweighed the potential prejudice to a party.''

This decision was reversed by the House of Lords, whose decision in turn was reversed by the European Court of Human Rights, basing on Article 10 of the European Convention, which places great emphasis on freedom of expression. Where to draw the line is indeed difficult.

N. Krishna Murthy,


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