Journalists Sentenced for Uncovering Corruption

Former Chief Justice of India Y. K. Sabharwal during a press conference on the last day of his tenure in New Delhi on Jan. 13. (Photo: Manpreet Romana / AFP-Getty Images)

India's Delhi High Court has sentenced four journalists to four months in jail because of their work uncovering alleged corruption involving a former India Supreme Court chief justice.

The criminal contempt sentence was handed down Friday, Sept. 21, but the four journalists remained free, pending an appeal.

The journalists at the Mid-Day newspaper uncovered how former chief justice Y. K. Sabharwal made rulings that appear to have helped his two sons, Y.K. Sabharwal Chetan and Nitin Sabharwal. The younger Sabharwals ran a development company in New Delhi that built shopping malls and their father made rulings that effectively shut down retail businesses that would have competed with the malls, according to the reports. Mid-Day is an English-language afternoon tabloid published in New Delhi.

Court officials accused the journalists of tarnishing the image of India's highest court. The convicted individuals have appealed to the Supreme Court of India, based on the premise that if the truth is told, they can't be held for contempt of court.

The four are cartoonist Irfan Khan, Mid-Day resident editor Vitusha Oberoi, city editor M. K. Tayal and former publisher S. K. Akhtar. Each was required to post a 10,000 Rupee bond (approx. $251) to stay out of jail pending the appeal.

The series of exposés claim Sabharwal's sons ran their business out of the senior Sabharwal's home in New Delhi. The judge oversaw zoning disputes in the city and made a series of rulings that shuttered retail businesses in residential districts. The rulings were called a "sealing drive."

"Sealing" means forcing particular businesses to shut down until the final verdict of a court. The court puts its seal on the lock and no one is allowed to enter the business. In many cases the shuttered properties were bulldozed. A Mid-Day report published on May 19 accused Justice Sabharwal of favoring his sons in his decisions.

Shutting down the businesses was highly unpopular and controversial, leading to widespread street protests. Mid-Day ran pictures showing residents chasing police and throwing rotten fruit and vegetables at them.

Khan, the cartoonist, said that the articles served a public interest. "I have been making cartoons on corruption for the past 20 years and whenever I find that there is corruption somewhere, I make cartoons on people, no matter what position they are on," he told a television reporter. "I have been sentenced for four months; even if I was sentenced for 40 years, I will continue to make cartoons."

In India, courts using criminal contempt cases to suppress the free expression of views came into sharp focus when the Supreme Court had sentenced the writer Arundhati Roy, a Booker Award winner, to one day in jail and a fine of $50 on March 6, 2002. She was accused of criticizing a verdict of the Supreme Court on the contentious Narmada dam. The dam flooded tens of thousands of acres and displaced thousands of rural Indians.

Roy came out in support of the Mid-Day journalists. In the English-language magazine Outlook, she wrote: "Some newspapers acting in solidarity have followed up the story. A number of people have come together and made a public statement further bolstering that support. There is an online petition asking for a criminal investigation. If either the government or the courts do not order a credible investigation into the scandal, then a group of senior lawyers and former judges will hold a public tribunal and examine the evidence that is placed before them. It's all happening. The lid is off, and about time too."

Liberal intellectuals in India ponder how such a situation could be countenanced in a democracy, where the right of free speech is fundamental and where every institution is subject to public scrutiny and criticism. It was also asked whether the judiciary was completely unaccountable. Can it arbitrarily declare all criticism of it to be contempt of court, and then punish the critics by sitting as judges in their own cause?

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Binod Ringania.